By SUSIE BLANN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv suspects is preparation for an offensive as the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion approaches.
Also Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government continued its crackdown on alleged corruption. The government dismissed several high-ranking officials, prominent lawmaker David Arakhamia said.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft. The latest allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight Moscow and as the Ukrainian government is introducing reforms so it can potentially join the European Union one day.
Ukraine’s Security Service said on the Telegram messaging app that an operation on Wednesday targeted “corrupt officials who undermine the country’s economy and the stable functioning of the defense-industrial complex.” It identified one of them as a former Defense Ministry official accused of embezzling state funds through the purchase of nearly 3,000 bulletproof vests that would inadequately protect Ukrainian soldiers.
On the battlefront, the Kremlin’s forces were expelling residents near the Russian-held parts of the front line so they can’t provide information about Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery forces, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said.
“There is an active transfer of (Russian troops) to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Haidai said.
The Institute for the Study of War said late Tuesday that “an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action.”
A new offensive might coincide with the invasion anniversary on Feb. 24.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported Wednesday that Russia was also concentrating its efforts in neighboring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.
Donetsk and Luhansk provinces make up the Donbas, an industrial region bordering Russia that President Vladimir Putin identified as a goal for takeover from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russian shelling of Bakhmut, from which most residents have fled while others spend much of their time in cellars, killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on Tuesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said Wednesday.
The regional governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, posted images of the aftermath of the shelling, showing huge black holes in residential buildings in the embattled city. He said Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel to the region.”
Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in the fall, but controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities. Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut. Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around the city.
But the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-controlled paramilitary group headed by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, on Wednesday denied that Bakhmut was encircled. “When the city is taken, you will certainly know about it,” Prigozhin said in an online post.
Ukraine is keen to secure more Western military aid to fend off the much larger Russian forces. It has already won pledges of tanks and now wants more.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described media reports about new U.S. military assistance to Ukraine expected to be announced soon as “a direct path to inciting tensions and taking the escalation to a new level.”
“It will require additional efforts on our part, but it won’t change the course of events,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
The Western allies are trying to broaden their coalition in support of Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday in Tokyo that he sought stronger cooperation and more “friends” for the alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
In other developments Wednesday:
— David Arakhamia, the head of the parliamentary faction of Ukraine’s Servant of the People party to which Zelenskyy belongs, said several senior officials were targeted in the government’s anti-corruption drive. Among those dismissed were Yuri Sotnik, who served as First Deputy Chairman of the State Forest Agency; Alexander Shchutsky, First Deputy Chairman of the State Customs Service; and Andrei Lordkipanidze, Deputy Chairman of the State Service for Food Safety and Consumer Protection, Arakhamia said. In addition, the deputy head of the customs service, Ruslan Cherkassky, has been suspended, according to Arakhamia.
The Security Service of Ukraine said in its announcement that two officials in from the a customs office in northern Ukriane were placed under house arrest on accusations that they helped illegally import ambulances without paying customs fees. A third target was the former management of oil producing company Ukrnafta and oil refiner Ukrtatnafta. They were accused of tax evasion and “legalization of funds obtained through criminal means,” the Security Service said.
Ukrainian media reported that high-profile anti-corruption raids targeted oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and former interior minister Arsen Avakov.
—Ukraine’s anti-corruption drive is expected to be on the agenda when the European Union’s two top officials, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel, meet with Zelenskyy on Friday. Ukraine’s long road toward potential membership of the EU will be a key issue under discussion, with stamping out corruption a key condition of membership.
— The presidents of Bulgaria and Serbia launched construction of the Bulgarian part of a gas link designed to diversify the energy supplies of a region that until recently was almost fully dependent on natural gas deliveries from Russia.
—Authorities in Russia’s western Bryansk province, which borders Ukraine, reported power outages after a Ukrainian rocket allegedly fell near an oil pumping station. No one was reported hurt. Putin met with officials to discuss alleviating damage from such cross-border attacks. Gov. Alexander Bogomaz told Putin that in the Bryansk region, Ukrainian shelling has killed four people, wounded 22 and damaged 235 houses since the conflict started. Kursk Gov. Roman Starovoit said 23 apartment buildings and 379 private houses in his region have been damaged. Putin said “the priority task is to liquidate the possibility of shelling,” repair damaged buildings and infrastructure, and compensate residents. Ukrainian officials have kept mum about most cross-border attacks, but emphasized their right to strike Russian territory.
—-At a news conference in Kyiv with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, Zelenskyy condemned Austrian businesses, which “do not leave Russia and continue to support the terrorist state.” He mentioned Raiffeisen Bank, which he said not only pays taxes but announced a tax holiday for mobilized Russian troops. “This is unacceptable in today’s realities,” Ukraine’s president said. The bank didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Austrian media quoted Raiffeisen Bank as saying they’re required under Russian law to provide the tax holiday.
Raf Casert in Brussels, and Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv, contributed to this report.
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