Zelenskyy, in risky move, ousts popular military commander Zaluzhnyi

KYIV, Ukraine — The collision from a slow-motion car wreck at the top of Ukraine‘s government finally came off Thursday as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced he was firing the popular commander of the country’s armed forces.

After a lengthy and often public battle of wills, Mr. Zelenskyy confirmed he had fired Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and appointed veteran land forces commander Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky as his replacement.

The move represents a clear gamble for the president just weeks shy of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. While Russia has replaced its top generals multiple times, Gen. Zaluzhnyi has been a stable force and a key architect of the surprising early victories Ukraine won against its larger, better-armed neighbor. He is also said enjoy good relations and respect from many of the Western military officials which whom he has dealt.



“I am grateful to Gen. Zaluzhny for two years of defense, I appreciate every victory we have achieved together, thanks to all the Ukrainian warriors who are heroically carrying this war on their shoulders,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in an address to the nation. “We candidly discussed issues in the army that require change, urgent change.”

On Thursday evening, Defense Minister Rustem Umerov also took to social media to weigh in on the decision. In a message published on Telegram, Mr. Umerov argued that the current situation required “new approaches and new strategies,” before also lauding Gen. Zaluzhnyi for his “achievements and victories” during his two-year tenure as Ukraine‘s supreme commander.

Gen. Syrsky, 58 and a veteran commander of Ukraine‘s ground force, has been credited with masterminding the successful defense of Kyiv, Ukraine‘s capital, in the first months of the war, before leading a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region during the fall of 2022 that won back significant Russian-occupied territory.

But the shake-up is bound to be controversial both among civilians and soldiers alike, as Gen. Zaluzhnyi enjoyed an unprecedented amount of support among the Ukrainian population even as the war has devolved into grim trench warfare with little movement in the east and south.

In a December poll published by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 92% of respondents said they trusted his conduct of the war, while 72% said they would disapprove of his dismissal. Gen. Zaluzhnyi‘s stenciled portrait is an ubiquitous sight in various cities on the frontline.

The decision is also likely to be unpopular among rank-and-file soldiers, with many of them being distrustful of what is seen as Gen. Syrsky’s “Soviet-style” leadership, characterized by its readiness to sacrifice lives to hold on positions of dubious strategic value.

Last year, Gen. Syrsky orchestrated the ultimately unsuccessful defense of the eastern city of Bakhmut, one of the war’s bloodiest battle so far. Even at the time, some had questioned the soundness of his decision to hold onto the marginally strategic city until the bitter end.

Some Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline greeted the news of a change of commanders with stoicism, arguing that they are not in a position to debate changes in leadership.

“You have to understand that all of us here are volunteers, we’ve been fighting since the beginning of this war,” the commander of an artillery unit positioned near the devastated town of Chasiv Yar, in Ukraine‘s eastern Donetsk region, told The Washington Times.

“Many of us had no idea who Zaluzhnyi was when we joined, I only learned of him after six months at the front. We did not go to fight for Zaluzhnyi, but for our Ukraine.”

But other soldiers said they were dismayed by the decision, which they consider a political one bereft of a broader strategic vision for the future conduct of the war.

“We’re all a bit shocked out here, to tell you the truth,” said an officer currently serving in eastern Ukraine, who asked to remain anonymous. “I’d say it’s not a very good thing, though of course time will tell. Everything we’ve seen so far does not inspire confidence. It’s sad, very sad.”

The supposed rift between Mr. Zelenskyy and his chief of staff had already made headlines in November after the failure of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023 and Gen. Zaluzhnyi‘s publication in The Economist magazine of an op-ed in which he argued that the war was “in a stalemate” that only a technological breakthrough could shift.

The Ukrainian president bridled at the statement, which left him scrambling to reassure Ukraine‘s Western partners on the conduct of the war, and he publicly contradicted his chief of staff a few days after the article was published.

“This is not about names, and even more so, not about politics,” Mr. Zelenskyy insisted Thursday. “This is about the system of our army, about the management in the armed forces and about involving the direct experiences of military commanders in this war.”

The two men had also clashed in recent weeks over the thorny issue of mobilization, with Gen. Zaluzhnyi calling for the conscription of hundreds of thousands of men to replenish the army’s depleted ranks. Wary of the backlash, Mr. Zelenskyy had so far been reluctant to make such a politically unpopular decision.

The shakeup comes at a time where Ukrainian forces are under increasing pressure all along the country’s sprawling front lines as they face a growing shortage of ammunition and weapons — a situation unlikely to improve the morale on the front lines.

“Politicians are interested in finding fast, crowd-pleasing decisions,” one soldier said, “but this can all end very badly. They’ll end up getting all of us killed.”

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