He warns in advance that he is going to be 15 minutes late and that’s exactly how it is. Before starting the interview inside a room with boarded-up windows, the governor apologizes for taking one last call on one of his two cellphones. Colonel Yuri Malashko, 48, has returned to the Zaporizhzhia regional government headquarters from the Huliaipole front, one of the hot spots of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. He does not hide the fact that they are facing a complicated challenge. “Recovering ground to the sea is going to be very difficult because the Russians have been digging defenses for more than a year.”
The governor of Zaporizhzhia is talking about one of the highest aspirations of the Ukrainian army in its current offensive, which is to reach the coast of the Azov Sea and cut off an essential corridor for Russian communications and infrastructure. This corridor allows Moscow to connect the Crimean peninsula, in its hands since 2014, with the Ukrainian region of Donbas and the Russian region of Rostov. Ukrainian troops are advancing very slowly and are still between 80 and 100 kilometers (50 to 62 miles) from that objective. “The people there are waiting for us. It is true that some are cooperating with the Russian Federation, but others are waiting for the liberation of our territories,” says Malashko.
As head of the Military Administration (governor), he is the highest authority in a region where 67% of the territory is occupied by the invading army. That is two thirds of its 27,100 square kilometers (10,463 miles). In addition to this strategic corridor, the Russians are also in control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, located on the banks of the Dnipro River.
Among the multitude of difficulties that Malashko has to face is the evacuation of people affected by the conflict and their relocation, either in the Zaporizhzhia region or in other parts of the country. In addition, he has to deal with the presence of civilians near the front line and their need for humanitarian aid. One of his initiatives has been the creation of an information point in the regional capital to centralize the work of humanitarian organizations and the urgent needs of the population.
Malashko calculates that there might be around 800 families still living in the 30-kilometer (18.6 mile) strip around the hostility zone, although it is a figure, he says, that varies every day. During the two days that EL PAÍS spent in Mala Tokmachka, one of the spearheads of the Ukrainian advance, there were barely any traces of civilians; instead, there were soldiers who had settled in the homes of local residents who left town.
But among those hundreds of families there are some 1,300 minors, despite the fact that, by law, they must be evacuated. “We pay special attention to the children, who we are trying to get out of there. Thank God there aren’t many, but we can’t take them from their parents by force,” says Malashko. Some of these families refuse to be evacuated. “Sometimes, people stay and just wait for our victory,” says the governor by way of justification.
In the same way, the Russian authorities that hold power in occupied areas sometimes organize population transfers to remove civilians from locations where the distance from the enemy is narrowing. This happened last month in 18 municipalities, where there were relocations of children with their parents, the elderly, disabled people and the wounded by order of Yevgeni Balitski, the governor that Russia has appointed in the occupied part of the region. Zaporizhzhia is, together with Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson, one of the four regions that Moscow unilaterally, illegally and without any external recognition, has considered part of its territory since last year.
Malashko’s role oscillates between the civilian and the military, although officially in his current position he is not part of the army. “Our main task is to protect the region as much as possible from the advance of the enemy. The second is deoccupation and all the issues that will have to be resolved afterwards. These issues affect both the civilian population and the military.” Although the army and the governor have “close cooperation,” Malashko says that he has nothing to do with the delivery and distribution of weapons or the supply of fuel, which is “the prerogative of the Defense Ministry.” On the other hand, he collaborates with the military in the supply and maintenance of drones, and by facilitating camouflage nets for vehicles, as well as other needs that he prefers not to specify.
Although he refuses to enter into a military and strategic discussion, the governor highlights the difficulty that Ukrainian troops are facing in their effort to overcome the extensive defenses established in recent months along hundreds of miles by the Russians, and which have been described, after a satellite image analysis, as one of the strongest since World War II.
Malashko has been serving in the military for three decades. He has held his current position in Zaporizhzhia since February, after arriving there from the neighboring Donetsk region, where the war began in 2014. Back in Donetsk, he was one of the heads of the intelligence services (SBU). He was appointed directly by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who began 2023 with an intense purge within his administration against individuals suspected of corruption, embezzlement or treason for collaborating with the enemy.
In recent months, in addition to appointing a new governor in Zaporizhzhia, the heads of the Kiyv, Odessa, Kherson, Dnipro, Lughansk, Sumi and Khmelnitsky regions have also left their posts. There has also been an overhaul inside ministries and state agencies, in some of whose offices large amounts of money turned up from bribes or from inflating prices of basic material necessary for the war effort. In July of last year, the president dismissed the chief of the SBU, until then considered part of his closest circle. Zelenskiy also sacked the attorney general, accused along with more than 600 people of providing information to the enemy.
“Any internal problem that hinders the state is being eliminated and will continue to be eliminated. It is fair, it is necessary for our defense and it helps our rapprochement with the European institutions,” said Zelenskiy in his address on January 24. “We need a strong state, and Ukraine will be just that.” Amid the rain of millions of euros that Kyiv is receiving to fight the invasion, there are concerns about the high level of corruption: Ukraine ranked 122th out of 180 in 2021 on a scale designed by Transparency International.
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