Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sacked the head of the country’s powerful domestic security service, the SBU, and the prosecutor general, accusing them of collaborating with Russia on security and military issues.
The embattled president issued the executive orders late on Sunday, citing more than 650 alleged treason and collaboration cases and alleging that more than 60 officials from the SBU security service and prosecutor’s office have been spying for Moscow in Russian-liberated territories.
“As of today, some 651 criminal cases have been registered on high treason and collaboration activities of employees of the prosecutor’s office, pre-trial investigation bodies, and other law enforcement agencies,” Zelensky stated.
The sackings of SBU chief Ivan Bakanov, and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova marks the biggest political development since the start of Russia's military operation in Ukraine almost five months ago.
“Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state ... pose very serious questions to the relevant leaders,” Zelensky said, adding that “each of these questions will receive a proper answer.”
He also noted that he had fired SBU’s former head overseeing the region of Crimea at the start of the invasion.
“Sufficient evidence has been collected to report this person on suspicion of treason. All his criminal activities are documented,” he said.
Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelensky, was appointed to head the SBU in 2019, one of an array of new faces who rose to prominence after Zelensky.
While Bakanov’s successor has not been named yet, the Ukrainian president appointed Oleksiy Symonenko as the new prosecutor general in a separate executive order after firing the top officials.
The development comes in the wake of Russian preparation for the next step of its military action in Ukraine after Moscow announced its forces would step up operations in “all operational areas,” according to a Ukrainian official.
“It is not only missile strikes from the air and sea,” said Vadym Skibitskyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence. “We can see shelling along the entire line of contact, along the entire front line. There is active use of tactical aviation and attack helicopters."
The Ukrainian military said Russia appeared to be regrouping units for an attack on Sloviansk, located southwest of Lysychansk.
This comes as Kiev has received more deliveries of longer-range missile systems from its Western allies, despite warnings from Russia.
As the conflict continues to rage across various parts of Ukraine, Russia’s defense minister Sergey Shoigu on a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday ordered military units to intensify operations to prevent Ukrainian strikes on eastern Ukraine and other areas held by Russia, according to a statement from the ministry.
Shoigu met the commanding officers of the ‘South’ and ‘Center’ troops, Army General Sergey Surovikin and Colonel General Alexander Lapin, as well as other senior commanding officers.
“The head of the Russian defense ministry gave the necessary instructions to ramp up the actions of groups in all operational areas in order to exclude the possibility of the Kiev regime launching massive rocket and artillery strikes on civilian infrastructure and residents of settlements across Donbass and other regions,” the military said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia's Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, responded to Ukrainian officials' statements that Kiev may strike the bridge linking Crimea and Russia, warning that that would trigger devastating consequences for the Ukrainian leadership.
"If that happens, the consequences will be obvious: They will momentarily face Doomsday," Medvedev said on Sunday. "It would be very hard for them to hide."
Medvedev said Russia will press its action in Ukraine until fulfilling its stated goal of "denazifying" and "demilitarising" the country.
Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.