Ukraine fires top cybersecurity officials amid corruption probe involving software purchases

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine on Monday fired its two top civilian cybersecurity officials as prosecutors announced an embezzlement probe involving software purchases from 2020-2022 in which the head of the state intelligence service was allegedly involved.

Among the fired officials is Viktor Zhora, known internationally as the face of Ukraine’s much-heralded, Western-backed efforts to defend itself against relentless Russian hacking campaigns.

Fired with Zhora, his boss, Yurii Shchyhol, head of the state service for special communications and information protection service, a senior cabinet official, Taras Melnychuk, announced on Telegram.

Neither man was named in a statement by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which said the head of state and his deputy and “the director-general and employee of a state-owned enterprise” were among the suspects and that the Special Communications Service was involved in the scheme .

Ukraine has been plagued by corruption scandals, most recently involving the firing of six deputy defense ministers. Government reform and dealing with the widespread corruption that existed in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion is a key condition for achieving membership of the EU and NATO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform, and his aides have portrayed recent firings of top officials, notably Ivan Bakanov, the former head of the state security service, as evidence of their efforts to crack down on graft. Bakanov was fired in July 2022.

In the embezzlement case, the alleged conspirators skimmed 62 million Ukrainian hryvni (currently $1.7 million) from a no-bid contract by colluding to raise the price of software and services bought from abroad, the anti-corruption agency said.

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It did not name the software purchased.

A statement on the website of the state service for special communications and information protection said that all its purchases have complied with legal requirements since 2020. It urged authorities to refrain from making accusations against individuals until the investigation is complete.

Zhora told The Associated Press that he has nothing to add to the statement.

He has represented Ukraine at major conferences in Washington and European capitals and at hacker gatherings, including BlackHat. Earlier this month, Zhora kicked off Cyberwarcon’s cybersecurity conference outside Washington.

“Ukraine is having a masterclass in defense right now. Viktor Zhora has run that defense,” said conference organizer John Hultquist of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, introducing him.

In September, Zhora told reporters in an online briefing that state-sponsored Russian hackers were particularly keen in recent months to try to break into and extract data from law enforcement agencies involved in Russian war crimes investigations.