Zelensky replaces his defense minister, Russian drones hit Ukraine port

Ukrainian president calls for ‘new approaches’ over a year into Russia’s invasion, names Rustem Umerov, a leading member of Crimean Tatar community, as new minister

Soldiers of Ukraine's 3rd Separate Assault Brigade shout slogans as they stand in line, near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. (AP/Libkos)
Soldiers of Ukraine's 3rd Separate Assault Brigade shout slogans as they stand in line, near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. (AP/Libkos)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday announced the departure of defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov, calling for “new approaches” a year and a half into Russia’s invasion.

The announcement came hours after Ukraine fought off an attack by Russian drones in the southern Odesa region early Sunday that hit a Danube port on the border with NATO member Romania.

Zelenskyy made the announcement on his official Telegram account, writing that new leadership was needed after Reznikov went through “more than 550 days of full-scale war.”

Later in his nightly address, Zelensky said he believes “that the ministry needs new approaches and different formats of interaction both with the military and with society.”

He nominated Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar who has been head of the State Property Fund since last year, to replace Reznikov — subject to approval by Ukraine’s parliament.

“The Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine is well acquainted with this person, and Umerov does not require additional introductions. I expect support for this candidacy from parliament,” the president told the nation.

File: Ukrainian parliament member Rustem Umerov pictured before a meeting in the Mansfield Room at the US Capitol on June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

Umerov, 41, a politician with the opposition Holos party, has served as head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine since September 2022. He was involved in the exchange of prisoners of war, political prisoners, children and civilians, as well as the evacuation of civilians from occupied territories. Umierov was also part of the Ukrainian delegation in negotiations with Russia over the UN-backed grain deal.

News of Reznikov’s removal comes with Kyiv’s counteroffensive underway and amid Ukraine’s general push against corruption in response to EU requests.

In August, a scandal arose around the Ministry of Defense’s procurement of military jackets. Ukrainian investigative journalists reported that the materials were purchased at a price three times higher than normal and that instead of winter jackets, summer ones were ordered. In the customs documents from the supplier, the jackets were priced at $29 per unit, but the Ministry of Defense paid $86 per unit. Reznikov denied the allegations during a news conference last week.

File: Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov attends a press conference in Kyiv, on August 28, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (SERGEI CHUZAVKOV / AFP)

Russian drone attacks

Russia meanwhile, continued its military campaign against Ukraine’s infrastructure. For weeks now, since pulling out of a key deal that allowed the safe passage of ships carrying grain, it has launched attacks on targets in the Black Sea and the Danube river.

This latest attack came on the eve of a summit in Russia between President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hopes to revive the grain deal.

Ukraine said Russia had hit the Odesa region with a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed drones.

But Kyiv also said that some of the drones hit the Danube area, wounding at least two people in attacks on “civilian industrial” infrastructure.

Russia’s army said it had targeted “fuel storage” facilities in the Ukrainian port of Reni, which lies on the Danube river that separates Ukraine from Romania.

Moscow has targeted the Danube ports of Reni and Ismail — both near Romania and across the war-torn country from fighting hotspots — several times over the last few weeks.

Reni, which also lies close to Moldova, is a sea and river port and important transport hub.

An Aerial view of the ruined houses in the destroyed village of Opytne near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. (AP/Libkos)

Bucharest’s defense ministry condemned the attacks as “in deep contradiction with the rules of international humanitarian law”. But it stressed that the attacks had not posed any direct threat to Romanian territory.

President Maia Sandu of neighboring Moldova also denounced the “brutal” attack.

Ukrainian breakthrough in south

The Odesa region attacks came as Kyiv has claimed some successes in its counter-offensive on the southern front this week.

On Wednesday, Kyiv said it had recaptured the village of Robotyne, calling it a strategic victory that would pave the way for its forces to push deeper into Russian positions towards Moscow-annexed Crimea.

General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, leading the southern counteroffensive, told The Guardian newspaper this weekend that Kyiv’s army has made an important breakthrough by breaching Russian lines near Zaporizhzhia.

“We are now between the first and second defensive lines,” Tarnavskiy — who led Ukrainian troops to liberate the southern city of Kherson — told the UK paper.

Heavily mined territory had slowed Ukrainian troops, he added, saying sappers had cleared a route by foot and at night.

The paper quoted him as saying that Kyiv’s forces were now back on vehicles and that Russia had redeployed troops to the area.

Soldiers of Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade shout slogans as they stand in line, near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. (AP/Libkos)

“But sooner or later, the Russians will run out of all the best soldiers,” Tarnavskiy said.

“Everything is ahead of us.”

At the same time, he admitted difficult losses, saying that “we are losing the strongest and best.”

Moscow’s recruitment drive

Russia has not announced another mobilization, seen as an unpopular measure, but has led an active campaign to attract more men into the military as its Ukraine offensive drives on into its 19th month.

Ex-president and Security Council chairman Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Moscow had recruited 230,000 people into the army since the start of the year, TASS news agency reported.

“Part of them were in the reserves, part of them volunteers and other categories,” he said during a visit to the Far Eastern Russian island of Sakhalin.

In early August, Medvedev said the army had recruited around 230,000 people since the start of the year.

In September last year, the Kremlin made a U-turn on promises not to announce a military draft, announcing a partial call-up to make up for losses on the Ukrainian front that led to the recruitment of 300,000 men.

But the announcement also triggered another wave of emigration from Russia, with hundreds of thousands believed to have fled abroad.

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