Ukrainian lawmakers pass law on oligarchs after assassination attempt

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine’s parliament passed a law on Thursday to order “oligarchs” to register and stay out of politics, a day after an attempt to kill a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which officials said could have been a response to the reform.

The law provides a definition for an oligarch and gives a body headed by the president, the National Security and Defense Council, the power to determine who meets the criteria.

Oligarchs would be forbidden from financing political parties or taking part in privatizations. Top officials, including the president, prime minister and head of the central bank, would be required to declare dealings they had with them.

Zelenskiy says it is necessary to protect the country from powerful businessmen who have corrupted its political system for decades. His opponents say they fear it will be applied selectively to concentrate more power in the president’s hands.

“Thanks to the anti-oligarch law, Ukraine gets a historic chance to build a civilized and clean relationship between big business and the state,” Zelenskiy said in a statement.

“Yes, many politicians do not like it. Yes, they want to live as before, working for the oligarchs. Yes, there was a lot of pressure on our deputies, a lot of intrigue and even blackmail. But the law was passed.”

The law passed a first reading in July. Thursday’s second reading, which passed with 279 votes in the 450-seat parliament, means it now goes to Zelenskiy for approval.

Zelenskiy’s team has suggested anger at the law could be behind an attempt to assassinate Serhiy Shefir, a top aide and close friend of the president. Shefir’s car was sprayed with gunfire on Wednesday by unidentified attackers as he travelled between two villages outside the capital.

Shefir was unharmed though his driver was wounded. Police are searching for the weapon and interviewing possible witnesses who were picking mushrooms nearby, Interior Ministry spokesperson Artem Shevchenko said on Thursday.

Zelenskiy, a former TV comic, won a landslide election in 2019 promising to tackle corruption and curb the influence of tycoons who have dominated business, the media and politics since the end of the Soviet era. Opponents say he owes his own rise to the tycoon whose TV channel backed his earlier career.

Opposition lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko, from former President Petro Poroshenko’s party, said by giving a presidential body the authority to determine who is an oligarch, the law “creates huge scope for corruption”.

Kira Rudyk, the leader of the Voice party, said the bill was designed “only to strengthen the power, strengthen the position of the president and make it so that he can, together with the National Security and Defense Council, actually decide who can have control over the media and who cannot.”

(Writing by Matthias WilliamsEditing by Peter Graff)

Aide to Ukraine’s president survives assassination attempt

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) -A volley of automatic gunfire hit a car carrying a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday, an incident a senior official called an assassination attempt and Zelenskiy said may have been a message intended for him.

The aide, Serhiy Shefir, survived unscathed but police said his driver had been wounded in the attack near the village of Lesnyky, just outside the capital Kyiv.

A prosecutor said the car had been hit 18 times, and multiple bullet holes could be seen along the driver’s side.

Police said in a statement they had opened a criminal case on suspicion of premeditated murder.

Zelenskiy, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said he did not know for now who was responsible for the attack, which shocked the country’s political elite.

“I don’t know yet who stood behind this,” said Zelenskiy. “Sending me a message by shooting my friend is weakness.”

Shefir is close to Zelenskiy and leads a group of advisers.

“I have not conducted any cases that would have caused aggression. I think this is intimidation,” Shefir told a joint news briefing with police and Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky.

“I think this won’t frighten the president,” he added.

Zelenskiy came to power on a promise to take on the country’s oligarchs and fight corruption, and Mykhailo Podolyak, one of his advisers, said the assassination attempt could be a result of the campaign against the oligarchs.

DOUBLING DOWN

Zelenskiy said he would be doubling down on his planned reforms rather than backing off.

“It does not affect the strength of our team, the course that I have chosen with my team – to change, to clean up our economy, to fight crime and large influential financial groups,” he said.

“This does not affect that. On the contrary, because the Ukrainian people have given me a mandate for changes.”

Podolyak, Zelenskiy’s adviser, promised tougher measures against oligarchs after the attack.

“This open, deliberate and extremely violent assault with automatic weapons cannot be qualified any differently than as an attempted killing of a key team member,” Podolyak told Reuters.

“We, of course, associate this attack with an aggressive and even militant campaign against the active policy of the head of state,” Interfax Ukraine quoted Podolyak as saying separately.

Parliament is this week due to debate a presidential law aimed at reducing the influence of oligarchs in Ukrainian society.

Police said they were investigating three scenarios: an effort to put pressure on the country’s leadership, an attempt to destabilize the political situation, and the involvement of foreign intelligence services.

“The purpose of this crime was not to scare, but to kill,” Monastyrsky, the minister, said.

Oleksandr Korniienko, the head of Zelenskiy’s political party, said Russian involvement should not be ruled out.

“A Russian trace should not be absolutely ruled out. We know their ability to organize terrorist attacks in different countries,” Korniienko told reporters.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said suggestions of Russian involvement “have nothing to do with reality”.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia ZinetsAdditional reporting by Ilya Zhegulev and Sergiy Karazy;Writing by Andrew Osborn and Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Giles Elgood)

Ukrainian president fires head of the armed forces, citing disputes

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has dismissed the head of the armed forces, Ruslan Khomchak, his spokesman said at a briefing on Tuesday, citing tensions between the armed forces and the defense ministry.

Khomchak will be moved to a post on the national security and defense council. He will be replaced by Valery Zaluzhny, who heads the military’s northern command. Ukrainian troops have fought Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

“Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak is leaving his post, this is the president’s decision,” Zelenskiy’s spokesman Sergii Nykyforov told a briefing.

“The president wants to see synergy between the ministry of defense and the armed forces of Ukraine, but unfortunately we do not see synergy, but on the contrary we see conflicts.”

The Ukrainian media in recent months have reported disputes between the defense ministry and Khomchak. Khomchak in March denied any rift: telling the news outlet gordon.ua: “Here is a working relationship where everyone has his own opinion, they can argue, they can discuss, they can come to something.”

Ukraine has urged its Western backers to speed up its entry into the NATO military alliance as a deterrent against Russia, though NATO members say Kyiv must reform its armed forces and tackle corruption to be able to apply.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Russia orders troops back to base after buildup near Ukraine

By Tom Balmforth and Matthias Williams

MOSCOW/KYIV (Reuters) – Russia announced on Thursday it was ordering troops back to base from the area near the border with Ukraine, apparently calling an end to a buildup of tens of thousands of soldiers that had alarmed the West.

The currencies of both Russia and Ukraine rose sharply after the announcement, signaling relief among investors just hours after Russia also ended war games in Crimea, the peninsula it occupied and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

There was no immediate response from Western countries, but a pullout of the troops brought in on top of the permanent contingent was likely to be welcomed by countries that had been expressing alarm at the prospect of further Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government in the region since 2014.

The Ukrainian president’s spokeswoman said this month that Russia had more than 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border and over 40,000 in Crimea. Around 50,000 of them were new deployments, she said. Moscow has not provided any troop numbers.

In a tweet, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas (eastern Ukraine)”, adding “Grateful to international partners for their support”.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had told Reuters Kyiv did not know whether Moscow intended to launch an attack or not, and said the West must make clear it would stand with Ukraine if Russia did so.

“So it can go in either direction now,” Kuleba said. “And this is why the reaction of the West, the consolidated reaction of the West, is so important now, to prevent Putin … from making that decision.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he had ordered troops involved in exercises to return to their bases by May 1, as they had completed what he called an “inspection” in the border area.

“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” Shoigu said.

EQUIPMENT LEFT

Military hardware was to be left at a training ground near the city of Voronezh, about six hours’ drive from Ukraine, so that it could be used again later this year in another big scheduled exercise.

Hours earlier, Shoigu had attended maneuvers in Crimea, which Moscow said involved 10,000 troops and more than 40 warships. Russia also announced it had arrested a Ukrainian man in Crimea as a spy.

The troop buildup near Ukraine was one of several issues that have raised tensions between Russia and the West.

Last week, the United States tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations that it had hacked computers and meddled in U.S. elections, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in deadly explosions at an arms dump in 2014.

Both countries expelled Russian diplomats, prompting angry denials and tit-for-tat expulsions by Moscow.

Western countries have also urged Russia to free jailed hunger-striking opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with Washington warning of “consequences” should he die in prison. Russia says the West should not interfere.

In a major speech on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin sounded a defiant note, warning Western countries not to cross unspecified “red lines”. But Putin is also participating this week in a climate summit organized by U.S. President Joe Biden.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin was aware of an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to meet to discuss the crisis.

“If the president considers it necessary, he will reply himself. I have nothing to say on that now,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Maxim Rodionov and Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey)