KYIV (UKRAINE) - Ukraine expanded a clampdown on corruption on Wednesday launching coordinated searches of residences linked to a divisive oligarch and former interior minister as well as tax offices in the capital.
The searches came ahead of a key summit with the EU and appeared to be part of a push by Kyiv to reassure key military and financial donors in European capitals and Washington that Ukraine is tackling systemic graft.
The head of President Volodymyr Zelensky's party, David Arakhamia, said the searches had targeted influential billionaire Igor Kolomoisky and former interior minister Arsen Avakov.
Law enforcement also raided tax offices in the capital and senior customs officials were fired, Arakhamia said in a post on social media announcing the shake-up.
"The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change," he added.
Ukraine for years has suffered endemic graft but efforts to stamp out corruption have been overshadowed by Moscow's invasion launched last February.
Last week authorities fired around a dozen senior figures, including defence officials and a top aide to the president's office, signalling a renewed push to clean up its image to appease Western backers.
The raids on Wednesday came two days before President Zelensky was expected to host a summit with officials from the European Union, which has urged reforms to facilitate deeper integration.
Investigators from Ukraine's security service, the SBU, released images of a search from the home of Kolomoisky who was barred from entering the United States over allegations of corruption and undermining democracy.
- 'All necessary steps' -
Prior to the invasion, Kolomoisky was one of the country's richest men with holdings in a slew of industries, including media, aviation and energy.
The security service said the search had been launched in connection with an investigation into the embezzlement of 40 billion hryvnia (more than a billion dollars) from energy holdings.
The Ukrainian government seized stakes in the energy companies -- oil producer Ukrnafta and refiner Ukrtatnafta -- as part of stated efforts to consolidate the war effort.
The SBU also said it had uncovered a scheme by the head of the Kyiv tax office over "multimillion-dollar" fraud schemes, accusing the official of abusing a position of authority.
In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Zelensky vowed officials would take further measures to sweep away graft, saying "all the necessary steps have already been taken."
"People in the government who do not meet the basic requirements of the state and society should not occupy their seats," he said.
Arakhamia added that as part of the measures Wednesday several senior defence ministry officials had been informed that they are formal suspects, without specifying the charges.
Last week the defence ministry announced the resignation of deputy minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who was involved in logistical support for the army.
That resignation came after the ministry was accused of signing food contracts at prices two to three times higher that market rates for basics.
- Donetsk battle getting 'worse' -
Despite being vocal about fighting corruption, Zelensky himself has been embroiled in corruption scandals in the past, and previously he was seen as harbouring links with Kolomoisky.
He is now working to drum up political backing for Ukraine at a critical time in the conflict, with Russian forces claiming to have captured fresh ground in the eastern Donetsk region.
AFP journalists near the small town of Vugledar in the battle-scarred industrial region this week witnessed artillery barrages to keep Russian forces at bay.
"The more time passes, the worse the situation gets," Oleksandr, 45, said from a trench just five kilometres (three miles) from Vugledar.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Tuesday that a dozen countries had promised more than 100 tanks after Germany and the United States signed off on the deliveries last week.
Now Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials are calling on the West to supply fighter jets and long-range artillery too. US President Joe Biden said he would discuss the new requests for advanced weaponry with Zelensky.
The Kremlin said Wednesday that any deliveries of long-range weapons to Ukraine would not change Russia's military objectives in the pro-Western country or change fighting on the battlefield.
"It would require greater efforts from us. But again, it won't change the course of events," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.