Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that the firing of several senior officials in an anti-corruption drive was necessary and that additional measures would be taken.
“It is fair, it is needed for our defence and it helps our rapprochement with European institutions,” he said. “We need a strong state and Ukraine will be just that.”
The dismissals on Tuesday marked Mr Zelenskyy's biggest personnel shake-up since Russia invaded almost a year ago.
They follow allegations of corruption in the government and military and claims that some officials have been living in relative luxury during a desperately difficult winter.
The firings shine a spotlight on corruption problems in Ukraine that have long held back its integration with the European Union and Nato, although western allies have largely been willing to put them to one side during the war with Russia.
One deputy minister, Vasyl Lozynskyy, was sacked after being investigated by Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau over an alleged $400,000 kickback.
Another minister overseeing Ukraine’s armed forces, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, stood down after claims of corruption in the military’s food supply, which he denied.
A prosecutor was forced out after reports that he took a holiday in Spain using a car financed by a Ukrainian businessman, during a difficult winter for most of the population.
A departing aide to Mr Zelenskyy, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, was criticised last year for apparently driving a car that had been donated to Ukraine for humanitarian purposes.
Mr Zelenskyy said officials “at various levels” were being replaced and announced a ban on senior figures leaving the country. A new head of the anti-corruption bureau is expected to be appointed soon.
A senior British military figure told The National that the corruption claims could damage Ukraine's image in the eyes of western countries.
“We should be absolutely clear that the image of Ukraine of noble suffering, freedom-loving, oppressed country that should be entitled to self-determination, that the truth of Ukraine is, of course, more complex. It was the most corrupt country in Europe and it still is corrupt,” General Sir Richard Barrons said.
Mr Zelenskyy had “papered over these cracks” and “created this image of a partner where it is the right thing to do to support it”, although that could now be under threat, said the former chief of Britain's Joint Service Command.
But he said Mr Zelenskyy's swift action “resonates with domestic opinion” and might make it “easier for governments to spend money on Ukraine”.
The EU, which has made some of its financial support for Ukraine conditional on anti-corruption reforms, said on Tuesday it welcomed the fact that the government was “taking these issues seriously”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to the Ukrainian president, said the government would not turn a blind eye to wrongdoing during wartime.
“During the war, everyone should understand their responsibility. The president sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand — justice for all,” Mr Podolyak said.
The new travel ban “applies to law enforcers, people's deputies, prosecutors and all those who are supposed to work for the state and in the state,” Mr Zelenskyy said in an overnight address.
“If they want to rest now, they will rest outside the civil service. Officials will no longer be able to travel abroad for vacation or for any other non-governmental purpose,” he said.
In the most recent rankings by Transparency International, a non-profit group, Ukraine placed 122nd out of 180 countries in its anti-corruption efforts, while Russia fared worse in 136th. The US and Britain have described corruption in Russia as endemic.
Ukraine conflict — in pictures
Analysts say Mr Zelenskyy's message in sacking the officials was that corruption will not be tolerated.
“It’s very hard to save the country when there’s a lot of corruption,” said Andrii Borovyk, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine.
It was US demands to tackle corruption in Ukraine that led to Donald Trump entangling himself in a scandal in 2019, when he sought to arm-twist Mr Zelenskyy into investigating links to Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Mr Zelenskyy has never made a secret of the problem, having come to office in 2019 as a political outsider promising to clean up the system and prise power away from wealthy oligarchs.
The European Commission says Ukraine has made progress in tackling corruption but that more work is needed before the country can meet the criteria for EU membership.
“Anti-corruption measures are of course a key dimension of the EU accession process,” a commission spokeswoman said on Tuesday in response to questions about the purge. G7 countries have promised to help Ukraine in this regard.
Corruption was also a factor in Ukraine's failure to achieve Nato membership before the war broke out. It has since renewed its calls to join the alliance.
Mr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday he received “words of support that are very important for Ukraine” in a meeting with another Nato applicant, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.
Finland said on Tuesday it will have to consider joining Nato without Sweden, following outrage from holdout Turkey at the burning of a Quran in Stockholm.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said joining together was the “first option” but that “we have to assess the situation, whether something has happened that in the longer term would prevent Sweden from going ahead”.
Turkey expressed outrage after far-right figure Rasmus Paludan burnt a copy of the Quran outside its embassy in Stockholm. It sparked counter-demonstrations around the world, including in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
Mr Haavisto said the stunt in Sweden was “clearly intended to provoke Turkey”. He said he did not expect progress on the Nato question until after Turkish elections in May.