Tensions between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, have reached a boiling point in recent days.
Reports emerged earlier this week that Zelenskyy was preparing to dismiss Zaluzhnyi from his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This prompted immediate backlash both domestically and from Ukraine’s Western allies, who warned that removing the popular general could be detrimental to the war effort against Russia.
After two days of swirling rumors and speculation, Zelenskyy ultimately backed down from plans to fire Zaluzhnyi following intense pressure. However, significant rifts remain between Ukraine’s civilian and military leadership.
Background on Zaluzhnyi
General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi has served as Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s armed forces since July 2021. The 48-year-old rose to prominence following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, earning praise for his leadership in halting Russia’s initial advance on Kyiv.
Under Zaluzhnyi’s command, Ukraine stunned many observers by mounting a successful counteroffensive in the fall of 2022, retaking large swathes of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region and southern Kherson region. This helped cement his reputation both in Ukraine and globally as a highly skilled, pragmatic military strategist.
While Zelenskyy remains Ukraine’s supreme commander-in-chief as president, Zaluzhnyi has become an extraordinarily powerful and popular figure during the war. A recent poll found that nearly 60% of Ukrainians expressed trust in the general.
|General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi’s Background
|Role: Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
|Assumed Role: July 2021
|Key Achievements: Halted Russia’s attack on Kyiv in 2022; Oversaw successful Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives
|Public Trust (Ukraine Poll Jan 2024): 59%
Rising Tensions Between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi
In recent months, tensions have been growing between President Zelenskyy and General Zaluzhnyi over military strategy and procurement issues.
While Zelenskyy has called for more aggressive action to retake occupied territories in the east, Zaluzhnyi has preached strategic patience and advocated a more methodical approach focused on wearing down Russian forces.
There have also been reports of clashes over defense spending priorities. Zaluzhnyi has pushed to invest heavily in high-tech weapons like air defenses and long-range artillery, while Zelenskyy’s administration has sought to devote more resources to infantry basics like body armor and medical kits.
This simmering friction boiled over last week when Zaluzhnyi gave an unauthorized media interview outlining his strategic vision for 2024. While Zelenskyy’s office likely saw this as an unacceptable breach of the military’s apolitical status, Zaluzhnyi’s backers have argued he was simply trying to reassure Ukrainians amid growing Western fatigue over the war.
Either way, the controversial interview appears to have been the last straw for Zelenskyy in an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with his top general.
Zelenskyy Moves to Fire Zaluzhnyi Amid Backlash
On Monday, rumors began circulating that President Zelenskyy had made the decision to dismiss General Zaluzhnyi and was preparing a decree to initiate his formal removal.
The unconfirmed reports prompted dismay from many Ukrainians, who see Zaluzhnyi as a highly competent commander and national hero. Critics accused Zelenskyy of putting personal grievances above Ukraine’s interests amid the ongoing existential fight against Russia.
More importantly, the move also prompted swift backlash from Ukraine’s Western partners. US and European officials warned firing the general could severely damage morale and unity on the battlefield at a critical juncture in the war. Some even threatened reductions in military aid if Zelenskyy removed Zaluzhnyi from his post.
Faced with mounting pressure both at home and abroad, Zelenskyy ultimately backed down just a day later. His administration let it be known the president had scrapped plans to force out Zaluzhnyi for the time being.
Uncertain Future for Civil-Military Relations
The dramatic showdown has exposed clear rifts between Zelenskyy and his top military brass. While Zaluzhnyi remains in his position now, his future seems dependent on keeping tensions with the president in check going forward.
However, Zelenskyy also likely realizes he needs to tread carefully given Zaluzhnyi’s strong domestic support and importance to securing foreign arms supplies. Ukraine can scarcely afford internal disunity or a shake-up in military leadership as Russia prepares its next offensive push in 2023.
In his address to Parliament this week, Zelenskyy called for unity and appeared to extend an olive branch by thanking the Armed Forces for their service. But it remains to be seen whether a lasting reconciliation can be achieved between the president and his independent-minded general.
If rumors resurface of Zalenzkyy attempting to remove Zaluzhnyi again, it could prompt renewed warnings from Ukraine’s partners. Congress has already indicated future aid could require certified assurances on Ukrainian military continuity and anti-corruption efforts.
With Ukraine still facing a grueling slog to repel Russian forces, speculation will continue swirling around the precarious relationship between two of the country’s most powerful men. Managing tensions between civilian control and military prerogatives could prove decisive in Ukraine’s fight for survival in 2024 and beyond.
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