KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shook up his faltering military Thursday, appointing a new defense minister and top general while speaking angrily about the years of decay and corruption that left the forces unable to deal effectively with the well-armed eastern insurgency.
His tougher tone, analysts say, reflects public pressure to continue the fight against the insurgents in the regions bordering Russia- even with a rickety military that’s had little success.
Poroshenko denounced the “complete collapse” of the government’s ability to supply the armed forces in a sometimes angry, finger-wagging speech in parliament.
He won quick approval for his choice of former top police official Valery Heletey as defense minister, replacing Mikhailo Koval. He also tapped Lt. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko as chief of the military’s general staff and Yury Kosyuk, an agriculture magnate and one of Ukraine’s richest men, to oversee defense issues in the presidential administration and to help “purge the army of thieves and grafters.” Accusations of corruption have been rife as Kiev’s operation against the rebels continues.
“Today the revival of the army is starting from scratch, an army which is capable of fighting and winning,” Poroshenko said in parliament.
Poroshenko’s shakeup underscores the complex job he faces of making peace overtures and at the same time suppressing the insurgency that threatens to tear his country apart or create a permanent twilight zone beyond government control.
Other pressures come from outside: Ukraine and the West say Russia is helping arm the rebels and letting its citizens cross the border to fight, while key allies France and Germany are pushing Poroshenko to pursue talks over attacks.
President Barack Obama consulted with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone Thursday about how to get peace talks back on track. The White House said they discussed diplomatic efforts to bring about a lasting ceasefire and agreed that the U.S. and Europe should levy further costs on Russia if it doesn’t de-escalate the situation quickly.
Poroshenko’s forceful words and demeanor Thursday contrasted with his emphasis on starting a peace process voiced in his inaugural address June 7. He declared a unilateral cease-fire for 10 days in hopes rebels would lay down their arms and join talks. But the cease-fire was repeatedly violated and ultimately expired. Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are pushing to get talks going again by Saturday, with the aim of achieving a cease-fire honored by both sides.
Rebels in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where more Russian speakers live, have declared independence and occupied government buildings. The insurrection, in which more than 400 people have died, started after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office by a protest movement among people wanting closer ties with the European Union instead of Russia. Russia called Yanukovych’s ouster a coup by radical nationalists and seized Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea region.
Poroshenko was elected in a special election May 25 to replace Yanukovych and faces high expectations.
“The level of impatience in society is very high,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy research institute in Kiev. “They want to see results.”
Getmanchuk said Poroshenko is careful to meet with a wide range of people, a habit he cultivated when serving as foreign minister in an earlier government, and knows what people are thinking. News media and traffic on social media urge action.
The mood was underscored when members of volunteer battalions demonstrated in front of his office, demanding an end to the cease-fire.
Getmanchuk cautioned that much of the desire for action is based on fear of Russia and anger at the loss of life suffered already, and “doesn’t consist of serious analysis of possible consequences.”
In Donetsk many people just want the fighting to be over. The city center was the scene of a gunfight in broad daylight Tuesday when separatists from the self-described Donetsk People’s Republic attacked a police building,
“We are tired of war. Our only wish is for all of this to be over so we can work in peace,” said Anton Orlets, a 58-year-old businessman. He expressed “hope that the new appointments will help the Ukrainian army achieve success, which so far has not been terribly noticeable in Donbass.”
Nadezhda Grishko, a 32-year-old shop assistant, said she was “afraid that they will start bombing the east even harder to show their success in the operation to the Kiev government. But the harder they press us, the stronger the Donetsk People’s Republic will become.”
Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev, said that Poroshenko “is facing pressure from below. “
“Society is demanding results, a continuation of the revolution, completion of the anti-terrorist operation” – the official term for the battle against the separatists.
Heletey’s background in the police is significant, said Karasev, and Poroshenko “understands that a military official should not head the ministry, because the military is becoming stronger and seeking political influence.”
He said the task will be nothing less than to “to create a Ukrainian national army from scratch.”
Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center of Applied Political Studies in Kiev, said that it was no accident that Poroshenko, who grew wealthy building a candy company, chose an official from the business world in Kosyuk. “One of the main problems with the anti-terrorist operation is lack of resources and chaos,” he said.
“Kosyuk has been a successful manager and may help fix the situation,” he said.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Donetsk. Associated Press writer Greg Katz contributed from London.