By Tom Balmforth and Max Hunder
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued executive orders overnight sacking the head of Ukraine’s powerful domestic security agency, the SBU, and the prosecutor general.
The orders dismissing SBU chief Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelensky, and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, who led the effort to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine, were published on the president’s official website. In a separate Telegram post, Zelensky said he had fired the top officials because many cases had come to light of members of their agencies collaborating with Russia.
He said 651 treason and collaboration cases had been opened against prosecutorial and law enforcement officials, and that over 60 officials from Bakanov and Venediktova’s agencies were now working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied territories.
“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. “Each of these questions will receive a proper answer.”
Zelensky appointed Oleksiy Symonenko as the new prosecutor general in a separate executive order that was also published on the president’s site.
Meanwhile, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev warned overnight that the refusal of Ukraine and Western powers to recognise Moscow’s control of Crimea poses a “systemic threat” for Russia and any outside attack on the region will prompt a “Judgment Day” response.
Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, did not elaborate but has previously warned the United States of the dangers of attempting to punish a nuclear power such as Russia over its actions in Ukraine (including Crimea which it seized in 2014).
The warning comes as Ukrainian military officials say Russia is preparing for the next stage of its offensive in Ukraine, after Moscow said its forces would step up military operations in “all operational areas”.
While Western deliveries of long-range arms begin to help Ukraine on the battlefield, Russian rockets and missiles have pounded cities in strikes that Kyiv says have killed dozens in recent days, including children.
“It is not only missile strikes from the air and sea,” Vadym Skibitskyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence, said over the weekend. “We can see shelling along the entire line of contact, along the entire front line. There is an active use of tactical aviation and attack helicopters. Clearly preparations are now underway for the next stage of the offensive.”
The Ukrainian military said Russia appeared to be regrouping units for an offensive toward Sloviansk, a symbolically important city held by Ukraine in the eastern region of Donetsk.
The British defence ministry said overnight that Russia was also reinforcing defences across areas it occupies in southern Ukraine after pressure from Ukrainian forces and pledges from Ukrainian leaders to drive Russia out.
Ukraine says at least 40 people have been killed in Russian shelling of urban areas since Thursday as the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24 intensifies.
The Russian military has declared a goal to cut off Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast all the way to the Romanian border. If successful, such an effort would deal a crushing blow to the Ukrainian economy and trade, and allow Moscow to secure a land bridge to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, which hosts a Russian military base.
Dozens of relatives and local residents attended the funeral of four-year-old Liza Dmytrieva in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on Sunday. The girl died in a missile strike on the city on Thursday that killed 24 people, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Rockets hit the north-eastern town of Chuhuiv in Kharkiv region on Friday night, killing three people including a 70-year-old woman and wounding three others, said regional Governor Oleh Synehubov.
“Three people lost their lives, why? What for? Because Putin went mad?” said Raisa Shapoval, 83, a distraught resident sitting in the ruins of her home.
To the south, more than 50 Russian Grad rockets pounded the city of Nikopol on the Dnipro River, killing two people who were found in the rubble, Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said.
Zelensky said Russia was continuing to sow grief and death on Ukrainian soil eight years on from the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. International investigators have said the plane was downed by a Russian surface-to-air missile probably fired by Russian-backed militia in the region.
Marking the anniversary over the weekend, Zelensky said his thoughts were with relatives of the dead and that nothing would go unpunished. “Every criminal will be brought to justice!” he wrote on Twitter.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered military units to intensify operations to defend parts of eastern Ukraine and other areas held by Russia, according to a statement from the ministry.
His remarks on Saturday appeared to be a direct response to what Kyiv says is a string of successful strikes carried out on 30 Russian logistics and ammunitions hubs, using several multiple launch rocket systems recently supplied by the West.
The strikes are causing havoc with Russian supply lines and have significantly reduced Russia’s offensive capability, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesperson said on Friday. He singled out US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that Kyiv began receiving last month.
“Good morning from HIMARS,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president wrote on Telegram on Sunday alongside a video showing a large explosion which he said was another destroyed Russian ammunition depot in southern Ukraine.
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