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Ukrainian officials fired after probe shows their workers collaborated with Russia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has abruptly removed two top officials.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One is Ukraine's spy chief. The other is the chief prosecutor. The president gave a speech saying both of these people ran agencies riddled with spies. An investigation allegedly found dozens of employees collaborating with Russia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is in Kyiv. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these officials?

MANN: Ukraine's prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova. She's played an important role prosecuting alleged Russian war crimes. But now she's out. Zelenskyy also fired one of his former close advisers, a guy named Ivan Bakanov. Bakanov was head of the state security service, which is Ukraine's spy agency. It's important to say, Steve, Zelenskyy didn't accuse them personally of treason or criminal wrongdoing. But he says a probe found nearly 200 employees within their departments engaged in criminal activity by aiding Russia. He says that raised big questions about their leadership.

INSKEEP: Well, what did the 200 Ukrainians allegedly do?

MANN: A lot of this appears to be fallout from the loss of Kherson. That's a strategically important city in southern Ukraine, which Russia occupied early in this war. The fall of Kherson still counts as one of Moscow's biggest, easiest victories. Ukraine officials now allege some government employees, including members of Ukraine's own spy network, helped Russia, provided Russia with crucial information about Kherson's defenses. In some cases, Zelenskyy says, some of those people are still collaborating with Russian occupation forces now. Here's Zelenskyy speaking in a televised address last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Zelenskyy said more than 60 employees of those two security and law enforcement departments have remained in Russia-occupied territories and are now actively working against Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Did the president provide evidence in this speech?

MANN: There's not a lot of detail here. But there has been concern for years that Russia's spy agencies have been able to infiltrate Ukraine's security forces. Ukraine officials have said publicly they found new evidence of improper communication between Ukrainian agents and agents working for Russia. One former regional head of the state security service was detained yesterday. Zelenskyy says all these other government employees who are under suspicion have now been notified that they're going to face legal proceedings.

INSKEEP: Wow. So give me a little context here. How does this announcement of dismissing or removing these two top officials fit into Ukraine's broader war effort?

MANN: You know, this is the biggest reshuffling we've seen in Zelenskyy's government since the war began. Zelenskyy himself described this as an important step to purify - that's his word - purify Ukraine as the war continues. There is continuing tension within Ukraine, especially in the south and east, over government officials and some business leaders who were openly pro-Russian before the invasion. Many of the people in those regions speak Russian, of course. They have strong cultural ties to Russia. So this is an ongoing challenge for Ukraine. Now Zelenskyy says there are hundreds of criminal cases open involving alleged collaborators. And this comes at a moment when the war is escalating again. Russia is pressing hard right now, Steve, with artillery and ground forces in the east, heavy cruise missile strikes hitting cities across Ukraine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann in Ukraine. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.