By Dan Peleschuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) - The biggest shake-up of Ukraine's government since Russia's full-scale invasion underlines President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's need to show key Western partners and war-weary Ukrainians that he is serious about tackling corruption and punishing misrule.
The abrupt exit of more than a dozen officials in recent days followed a series of scandals and graft allegations, including one involving the Defence Ministry that had sparked a public outcry despite being denied.
Ukraine's long-running struggle with graft has taken on added significance as Kyiv battles for survival while also pursuing a bid to join the European Union.
Russia's invasion has made the country more reliant than ever on Western support, particularly in the form of military aid, and the international community has made clear it wants to see Ukrainian governance improve.
"Simply put, a warning was needed, a kick ... to sober up officials so that they don't behave in a way that's unacceptable in wartime," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
The clear-out, which continued on Wednesday with the exit of five regional prosecutors, included outgoing officials tainted with past graft allegations and others whose ouster was unrelated, Fesenko added.
Among the most high-profile cases was that of a deputy defence minister who resigned following a report, which he denied, that his ministry paid inflated prices to feed troops.
A presidential adviser who had been called out by local media for driving flashy cars also quit, as did a senior prosecutor who local media reported had gone on holiday to Marbella in Spain, flouting martial law.
"This is simultaneously an intensification of the fight against corruption and a reaction from the president ... to critical articles in the media," Fesenko said.
Commenting on the shakeup in his nightly address on Tuesday, Zelenskiy said it was "necessary for our protection" and that "it helps our rapprochement with European institutions.
"We need a strong state, and Ukraine will be just that," he said.
A slowdown in fighting on the front despite a major Russian push around the eastern towns of Soledar and Bakhmut, thanks in part to bad winter weather, likely provided a window for Zelenskiy to force the changes, Fesenko added.
As the shakeup unfolded on Tuesday, a European Union spokesperson told a briefing that officials in Brussels "welcome the fact that the Ukrainian authorities are taking these issues seriously", but that more reform work was needed.
The European Union has made the appointment of a new director to lead the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the country's chief anti-graft law enforcement agency created in 2015, one of those tasks.
Corruption has long plagued Ukraine, where wealth and resources were quickly concentrated in relatively few hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago.
But tackling graft has become more urgent since the European Union offered Kyiv candidate member status last June, months after Russia's invasion. Cleaning up government and a crooked judiciary were among the requirements for negotiations to begin.
Lawmaker Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, first deputy head of the parliamentary committee on anti-corruption policy, said the shakeup partly sought to demonstrate that Kyiv saw cracking down on misrule as a key element of its Western integration.
"Ukraine can win the war against Russia only as a member of a broad anti-Putin coalition of democratic countries that have a high demand for zero-tolerance when it comes to corruption," he told Reuters.
The Ukrainian public, exhausted by 11 months of war, was also clearly a key intended audience for the sackings and resignations.
Political analyst Petro Burkovskyi said that corruption scandals were increasingly likely to stoke public anger as the war ground on and that demands for accountability would grow.
A survey published this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that only 25% and 21% of Ukrainians trust the courts and prosecutors, respectively.
But the same poll, which included nearly a thousand respondents across government-controlled Ukraine, found that 84% trusted Zelenskiy - up from 27% a year earlier.
The president, who turned 45 on Wednesday, has won widespread praise at home and abroad for his leadership during the war, and he will not want that authority undermined by resentment directed towards him and his officials.
"It's very important for the authorities not to lie or cover for anyone," said Burkovskyi, executive director of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation think tank.
(Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Mike Collett-White)