Colonel Serhiy Kryvonos, a large, bald and grisly-bearded man in his late 40s, seems to feel a bit out of place in the quietness and comfort of his new office in central Kyiv.

Even though his office is richly furnished, in the best traditions of senior Ukrainian bureaucracy, he continues to wear his usual everyday camouflage clothing, as though he was still somewhere in the Donbas war zone.

It’s been a month since President Petro Poroshenko appointed Kryvonos as a deputy secretary of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council.

His nomination was a pleasant surprise for many: The senior Special Operations officer, with long combat experience and a sparkling reputation, replaced Oleh Hladkovskiy, Poroshenko’s long-time business partner, who was fired in March amid yet another headline-making corruption scandal involving alleged massive embezzlement and smuggling in the defense sector.


Now, with just days to the April 21 runoff election that may put Poroshenko out of power, Kryvonos is vowing to finally bring the country’s scandal ridden and disorganized defense production sector to order.

Within the next months, he promises to launch a long-overdue international audit of the national military production giant UkrOboronProm, consisting of over 130 enterprises, then transform it, weeding out the corruption that has corroded the concern from within for years.

Other than that, Kryvonos, formerly a presidential candidate, intends to carry out part of his own election program: Grant unrestricted firearms possession to tens of thousands of members of territorial defense units to be set up throughout the country. 

Career officer 

Born in 1970 in Poltava Oblast’s Kremenchuk, Kryvonos started his military career in 1988 as a Soviet Army draftee. But he continued with his military education at Kyiv Combined Arms Command School. 

He was later appointed commander of the 8th Special Operations Regiment, one of Ukraine’s best combat formations, based in the city of Khmelnitsky. In early days of Russia’s war in Donbas in 2014, he directly commanded a defensive operation in the battle of the Kramatorsk Airport, in which his troops secured a decisive victory and inflicted heavy casualties on Russian-led forces.


Kryvonos continued his career as the leader of the Special Operations Department at the General Staff. In 2016, the Special Operations Force of Ukraine was reformed into a separate branch within the armed forces, Kryvonos was appointed as its first deputy commander.

In early 2019, he was a surprise presidential candidate, but his campaign only lasted a month: in March he withdrew in favor of Poroshenko. 

Just a few days later, Poroshenko appointed Kryvonos as the new deputy secretary of the National Defense and Security Council.

Corruption risks

Appointed amid a defense corruption scandal involving his predecessor Hladkovskiy, Kryvonos immediately set out a harsh anti-graft agenda, vowing to punish “the rats that tried, or are trying, to plunder the army.”

Talking to the Kyiv Post, the colonel declined to comment on his predecessor, whose son, according to the Bihus.Info investigative journalism project, embezzled millions of dollars by smuggling defunct and used components for military vehicles from Russia, selling them to Ukrainian military plants at inflated prices.


But Kryvonos did say his defense sector reforms were aimed at eventually making corruption impossible by closing all loopholes for abuse.

“The biggest corruption risk is the presence of two interested persons: one willing to break the law, and another who can help them do it,” he said. 

“If at the state level we introduce electronic taxation as soon as possible, we get rid of those two persons. You can’t cut a deal with a computer. This is what works fine all over the world. You shouldn’t fight corruption – you should make it impossible.”

Kryvonos adds that his team is also consulting with Ukraine’s SBU security service about introducing new legislation to partially lift the smothering cloak of secrecy in defense procurement, which has been blamed for hiding massive corruption.

Ukraine’s Armed Forces Colonel Serhiy Kryvonos, pictured during a meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Kyiv on Oct. 1, 2015. (UNIAN)

Polygraph test

In early April, Poroshenko, still affected by the fallout of the latest defense corruption scandal, announced that top managers at UkrOboronProm, including all directors of military enterprises and finance officials, would undergo lie detector tests.

All evidence of crimes uncovered by the tests will be submitted to Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies, the president said.


Kryvonos said the list of those subject to the tests and the procedure for their questioning had already been approved. He said the system would soon be working at full speed, run by several law enforcement agencies at the same time.

“Neither the polygraph testers nor those questioned will know who is going to come to them or where they are going to take the test,” Kryvonos said.

“This will make bribery attempts from both sides impossible.”

Nonetheless, Kryvonos said the polygraph results could not be used as evidence in criminal investigations, even if they indicated wrongdoing.

“Lie-detector tests are not envisaged by our legislation,” he said. 

“But if you’re an honest person and you’ve got nothing to hide, why wouldn’t you pass a polygraph test? … You can refuse, but after that you must clearly understand that you’ll … attract a certain amount of mistrust, and (due to this) lack of trust, you’ll be watched even more closely.”

Total transformation

Shortly after the appointment of Kryvonos, Poroshenko on March 16 approved a decree of the National Defense and Security Council to conduct a comprehensive audit of UkrOboronProm and its enterprises.

This was presented as the president’s effort to tackle the Hladkovskiy scandal. However, a tender for a Hr 130 million ($4.8 million) contract for a comprehensive audit of the concern had been declared on the Prozorro e-procurement system as far back as November 2017, but had come to nothing.


Kryvonos said a contractor would be found this time, and the audit would be held soon.

“The audit will reveal all the dark sides (of UkrOboronProm) not seen by society and the international community,” he said.

“Holding the audit and bringing the problems to the surface, as well as the recommendations the audit could give, will raise the interest of our strategic partners – and they are indeed interested. That’s why they insist on the audit.”

Other than that, based on the audit results and the overhaul of top management, UkrOboronProm’s bureaucratic machine will be drastically reduced in size.

“Our main task is to make our enterprises more competitive,” Kryvonos said. 

“We must regain the people’s trust in UkrOboronProm. Reducing bureaucracy makes enterprises work quicker and better. There have been lots of times when decisions that should have been made within a day, or even an hour, took several months to make. This impedes the functioning of the whole system.”

Once the audit results are available and all necessary legislative acts passed by parliament, Kryvonos says he can complete the reform of Ukraine’s defense industry within six months. 

Territorial defense


Kryvonos’ reform program entitled “Five Steps to Victory” also envisages the introduction of a nationwide network of territorial defense units. 

Based on similar forces in the United States and Estonia, and using Ukraine’s own experience in creating volunteer battalions, these units of armed and trained civilians would become a militia to help the armed forces fight an invader (Russia), using guerrilla warfare.

“The main point of territorial defense is: ‘I defend myself, my home, my street, the district I live in,’” Kryvonos explained. “’I’m the master and I protect my neighborhood.’”

“So the task of territorial defense units is to ensure situational control, and to quickly impose a regime making it impossible for Russian subversion groups or separatist formations that appeared in the area to act.”

The proposed network would include “tens of thousands” of armed civilians organized into local squads, platoons, companies, battalions, and brigades all across the country. 

But introducing this system will naturally require a serious relaxation of gun control regulations in Ukraine.

“We will submit bills to allow for territorial defense force members to possess rifled firearms,” Kryvonos said. “This is very important.”

A fighter of Ukrainian volunteer Donbas battalion practices shooting during military drills near the city of Mariupol, on April 1, 2015. (AFP)

Political ambitions

Despite withdrawing his candidacy in favor of Poroshenko, Kryvonos says he still has political ambitions.

The results of his reforms at the National Security and Defense Council could be a stepping stone for his further career in politics.

“If I manage to get this all done, I won’t even need a political campaign,” he said. 

“I will back my claims about making this country a better place with my own achievements.”

His reputation and military background mean not only Poroshenko has been seeking his support: on  March 18, the presidential race frontrunner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedy star with no political experience, said he had been in talks with Kryvonos, whom he is said to have known since the days of the battle of Kramatorsk Airport in 2014.

Zelenskiy claimed the two had agreed to sign a memorandum of support after the April 21 runoff election, and that he considered Kryvonos to be “number one in the defense sphere.”

Speaking with the Kyiv Post, Kryvonos confirmed he had met with Zelenskiy “between Feb. 15 and Feb. 20,” and that the two had discussed potential cooperation in the October parliamentary elections.

Kryvonos said Zelenskiy had offered him the posts of chief of the general staff or defense minister, but that he had refused, he told the Kyiv Post.

“I clearly responded that that they didn’t interest me,” he said.

“I’m concerned about the development of Ukraine directly. And I’m not interested in the posts of chief of the general staff or the minister of defense, because the program I want to implement is above both of these positions.”

During both voting rounds Kryvonos has continued to back Poroshenko, arguing that “replacing the commander-in-chief is impractical.”

“People should clearly understand – in the runoff vote, they are primarily electing a commander-in-chief who has to bring the country to victory,” Kryvonos said.

“And I really want an experienced person with a background in this war to lead us to victory.”

However, the latest polls published on April 16 by the Kyiv-based KIIS institute looked ominous for the incumbent president just days before Election Day on April 21 – only 25.4 percent of voters support him, against 72.2 percent for his rival Zelenskiy.

Kryvonos wouldn’t say if he would accept or consider any further offers from Zelenskiy if Poroshenko is defeated:

“There’s no point asking about or predicting something that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

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