After having warned at a press lunch broadcast live on 26 November that the country faced the threat of a coup at the same time as being confronted with a marked escalation of hostilities with Moscow, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky carried out a symbolic reshuffle of his security apparatus. In the meantime, tension between Ukraine and its Russian neighbour is still at a high level, even though the predicted coup has not taken place.
The supposed coup attempt is now being investigated by the Ukrainian internal intelligence service, the SBU, where agents are all watching each other with perplexity. It has served, however, as a means of attacking not only Moscow but also Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who has already been engaged in open communication warfare with Zelensky for several months.
On 29 November, the day the SBU investigation started, Zelensky dismissed counter-espionage chief Oleksandr Rusnak. This came just three days after his spectacular claim that a coup was set to take place on 1 December. According to reports, it had been fomented by a former Russian FSB officer and three former Ukrainian interior ministry employees, with backing from Akhmetov supporters who had tried to involve Akhmetov himself in it. In this way, in the minds of the public Zelensky recreated an implicit link between Akhmetov, who used to be a major backer of Russophile former Ukrainian president Viktor Ianoukovitch , and the threat posed by Russia.
General Rusnak was replaced as head of counter-espionage on 30 November by Oleksandr Poklad, who had, until then, been head of the fifth bureau of the counter-espionage department. The same day, counter-espionage cyber security chief Ilya Vityuk was appointed head of Department T, the SBU department for the protection of state interests in the information security field.
Zelensky recruits Akhmetov sympathisers
Some of these recent appointments indicate a wish on Zelensky’s part to break with the established practice of appointing only very close associates to key posts despite their being inexperienced in politics and security matters. The president’s childhood friend, Ivan Bakanov, for example, was made head of the SBU, while former lawyer and cinema producer Andriy Yermak was put in charge of the presidential administration, the Bankova.
This time, Zelensky has brought in men linked to the former Russophile Opposition Bloc party. It was split into two in 2019, one part joining the Opposition Platform – For Life, while the other brought together a certain number of Akhmetov supporters. New counter-espionage chief Oleksandr Poklad was a volunteer assistant of Opposition Bloc deputy Ivan Mirniy. Earlier, on 23 November, Zelensky appointed Rostyslav Shurma deputy head of the Bankova. He, too, is close to the Opposition Bloc, which he represented as a regional coordinator and then, in 2019, as a candidate in the parliamentary elections. From 2012 to 2019, he was head of the Zaporizhstal steel works, which has been wholly owned since 2013 by Metinvest, a holding company controlled by Akhmetov and his main holding company System Capital Management .
Annual address and the Russian response
Although the alleged coup had been expected on 1 December, the anniversary of Ukrainian independence from the USSR in 1991, Akhmetov was then far away from Kyiv turmoil. He was in Switzerland, receiving an award from the Union of european football associations (UEFA) for his 25 years directing the FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
Zelensky was finally able speak on that day to the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, which had been secured by a large police contingent and the National Guard. This gave him a public platform to pronounced his end-of-year address. In it, he highlighted the progress made during his mandate and called on Moscow to engage in direct dialogue with the Ukrainian government. He did not really return to his earlier coup alert, however, even though, in the closely guarded streets of Kyiv, different groups of demonstrators marched to celebrate the independence anniversary, express their anger over the supposed coup threat and the Russian menace and to contest Zelensky’s legitimacy as president.
On 2 December, in Russia, the Russian FSB arrested a number of supposed agents of the SBU and GUR (Ukrainian military intelligence service).