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Ukraine sacks top cybersecurity officials in corruption probe involving software purchases

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

The sacked officials include Viktor Zhora, who is well-known internationally as the face of Ukraine's much-heralded, Western-aided efforts to defend against incessant Russian hacking campaigns.

Fired with Zhora was his boss, Yurii Shchyhol, head of the State Service of 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 intelligence and his deputy and “the general director and employee of a state-owned enterprise” were among the suspects and that the Special Communications service was involved in the scheme.

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Ukraine has been plagued by corruption scandals, mostly recently involving the firing of six deputy defense ministers. Government reforms, and tackling the widespread corruption that existed in Ukraine before Russia's invasion, are a key condition for obtaining membership in the European Union and NATO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform, and his aides have portrayed the recent firings of top officials, notably Ivan Bakanov, former head of the State Security Service, as proof 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 inflate the price of software and services purchased from abroad, the anti-corruption bureau said.

It did not name the software purchased.

A statement on the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection website said all its procurement has adhered to legislative requirements since 2020. It urged authorities to refrain from making accusations against individuals until the investigation is complete.

Zhora told The Associated Press 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 keynoted the Cyberwarcon cybersecurity conference outside Washington.

“Ukraine is putting on a masterclass in defense right now. Viktor Zhora has been running that defense,” conference organizer John Hultquist of the cybersecurity firm Mandiant said in introducing him.

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