KYIV (Reuters) -Security services searched the home of one of Ukraine's most prominent billionaires on Wednesday, moving against a figure once seen as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's sponsor in what the authorities called a wartime anti-corruption purge.
The action, days before a summit with the European Union, appears to reflect determination by Kyiv to demonstrate that it can be a steward of billions of dollars in Western aid and shed a reputation as one of the world's most corrupt states.
It came as Kyiv has secured huge pledges of weapons from the West in recent weeks offering new capabilities - the latest expected this week to include rockets from the United States that would nearly double the firing range of Ukrainian forces.
Underlining Ukraine's need for more advanced arms, the country's deputy defence minister said late on Wednesday that fierce fighting was continuing in the east, where she said Russia had superiority in numbers of troops and weapons.
Photos on social media appeared to show tycoon Ihor Kolomoiskiy dressed in a sweatsuit and looking on in the presence of an SBU security service officer at his home. Reuters could not immediately verify the images' authenticity.
In a statement that did not name Kolomoiskiy, the SBU published the same photos, but with the person's face blurred.
The SBU said it had uncovered the embezzlement of more than $1 billion at Ukraine's biggest oil company, Ukrnafta, and its biggest refiner, Ukrtatnafta. Kolomoiskiy, who has long denied wrongdoing, once held stakes in both firms, which Zelenskiy ordered seized by the state in November under martial law.
Kolomoiskiy could not immediately be reached for comment.
Separate raids were carried out at the tax office, and the home of Arsen Avakov, who led Ukraine's police force as interior minister from 2014-2021.
"Every criminal who has the audacity to harm Ukraine, especially in the conditions of war, must clearly understand that we will put handcuffs on his hands," Ukraine's security service chief Vasyl Malyuk was quoted as saying on the SBU Telegram channel.
MILITARY AND FINANCIAL AID
The infusion of Western military and financial aid creates new pressure on Zelenskiy to demonstrate his government can clean up Ukraine.
Last week, he purged more than a dozen senior officials following a series of scandals and graft allegations in the biggest shakeup of Ukraine's leadership since the invasion.
Following Wednesday's raids, the parliamentary leader of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, David Arakhamia, wrote on Telegram: "The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change."
Zelenskiy, who first came to fame as the star of a sitcom on Kolomoiskiy's TV station, has long promised to rid Ukraine of so-called oligarchs, but had faced accusations that he was unable to move decisively against his former sponsor.
In an address overnight before the raids, he alluded to new anti-corruption measures in time for Friday's summit, which Kyiv sees as key to its hopes of one day joining the bloc - a more urgent goal since Russia's invasion almost a year ago.
Ukrainian forces who recaptured swathes of territory from Russian troops in the second half of 2022 have seen their advance stall since November. Kyiv says the key to regaining the initiative is securing advanced Western weaponry.
Two U.S. officials said a new $2 billion package of military aid to be announced as soon as this week would for the first time include Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), a new weapon designed by Boeing.
The cheap gliding missiles can strike targets more than 150 km (90 miles) away, a large increase over the 80 km range of the rockets fired by HIMARS systems which changed the face of the war when Washington sent them last summer.
That would put all of the Russian-occupied territory on Ukraine's mainland, as well as parts of the Crimea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014, within range of Kyiv's forces.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the arrival of longer-range U.S. weapons would escalate the conflict.
Western countries pledged scores of advanced main battle tanks for the first time last week, a breakthrough in support aimed at giving Kyiv the capability to recapture occupied territory this year.
But the arrival of the new weapons is still months away, and in the meantime Russia has gained momentum on the battlefield, announcing advances north and south of the city of Bakhmut, its main target for months.
Kyiv disputes many of those claims and Reuters could not independently verify the full situation, but the locations of reported fighting clearly indicate incremental Russian advances.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar, writing on the Telegram messaging app, said that Russian forces were trying to gain ground near the strategic town of Lyman and that, despite heavy losses, were also pressing ahead with an offensive near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
South of Bakhmut, Russia has also launched a major new offensive this week on Vuhledar, a longstanding Ukrainian-held bastion at the junction of the southern and eastern front lines. Kyiv says its forces have so far held there.
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(Reporting by Reuters bureauxWriting by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Andrew Cawthorne)