Kyiv, Ukraine – Rumors and allegations have swirled in recent weeks regarding the dismissal of Valerii Zaluzhny, the head of the Ukrainian army.
Last week, several lawmakers and insiders claimed that the taciturn and immensely popular 50-year-old four-star general had been removed from his post and ready to lead Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
President Volodymyr Zelensky decided to fire him in early December after Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin visited Kiev, the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported, citing an anonymous source.
But on Monday, Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said: “This is not true.”
Even if the ministry has no influence over Zaluzhny, in the event of a possible dismissal, it would have to submit a “recommendation” for his dismissal to Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s nominal commander-in-chief.
” There is nothing to say. There were no layoffs. I have nothing to add,” Zelensky’s spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov said in a televised address on Monday.
But many observers have doubts.
“There was an attempt to convince Zaluzhny to change jobs voluntarily, on his own. The attempt was not very successful, so the matter was postponed,” kyiv-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told Al Jazeera.
But dismissal “is a question of time and circumstances,” he said.
There is “psychological tension” between Zaluzhny and the president, who remains dissatisfied with the situation. failures of last year’s counterattackFesenko said.
Popular despite the failures of the counter-offensive
Several counterattacks in late 2022 liberated almost half of the Russian-occupied areas and assured the Ukrainian public that the 2023 summer campaign in the east and south would be successful. But Russia took advantage of a lull in hostilities to build multi-layered defense installations along the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) front line and deployed hundreds of thousands of newly mobilized military personnel to equip them.
Zaluzhny’s months-long counterattack transformed in trench warfare akin to World War I, as its forces won, lost and regained tiny plots of land amid heartbreaking losses of soldiers and Western-supplied weapons.
Even the failure of the mutiny and the dismantling of the Wagner mercenary group, which spearheaded Russia’s advance, didn’t help Ukrainian counterattacks.
This failure has repeatedly been attributed to Zaluzhny’s tactical errors and delays in the supply of Western weapons such as fighter jets and missiles.
As Zaluzhny did not present a new action plan for 2024, Zelensky sometimes bypassed him in managing the armed forces, Fesenko said.
But Zaluzhny’s authority among senior officers and the military remains very high.
In early 2022, when Ukrainian politicians were adamant that Russian President Vladimir Putin was bluffing and would not dare invade, Zaluzhny, who has led the armed forces since July 2021, has worked hard to prepare.
“In the political field, the views were different, but the military with him at the helm tried hard to prepare and he demonstrated his success,” Lt. Gen. Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief, told Al Jazeera of the Ukrainian General Staff.
Once a little-known figure, Zaluzhny rarely speaks to the press and avoids publicity. He is by far the most trusted person in wartime Ukraine.
He is more popular than Zelensky: 88% of Ukrainians trust him, according to a recent poll, while 62% trust the president.
Seventy-two percent were against his dismissal while 2 percent would support it, according to a survey conducted in early December by the International Institute of Sociology in kyiv.
But popularity will not necessarily translate into political success.
Ukrainian elites and public generally do not view the military and law enforcement as a source of political and presidential information.
Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, appointed former intelligence chief Evhen Marchuk as prime minister in 1995, but quickly fired him for “trying to build his own political image.”
Another aspiring president, former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, died in 2005 from two gunshot wounds to the head, officially ruled a suicide.
Former intelligence chief Ihor Smeshko and former Defense Minister Anatoly Hritsenko formed their own political parties but gained minimal support in their attempts to run for president.
In Ukraine, the army is “not a political institution with a particular vision of development like in Latin America,” kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kuschch told Al Jazeera.
So if Zaluzhny chose to leave the military to pursue politics, he would be a “good sparring partner” for Zelensky but would not be elected president, said Igar Tyshkevich of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a think tank in Kiev.
“But it is almost guaranteed that he will lead one of the most important factions of the Verkhovna Rada,” Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera, in the lower house of the Ukrainian parliament.
He dismissed fears that protests could erupt if Zaluzhny was sacked.
Media leaks have named two generals who could replace Zaluzhny.
One of them is Kyrylo Budanov, a 38-year-old who led small intelligence groups that landed in annexed Crimea before the war and who today heads the Main Intelligence Directorate within the Ministry of Defense. Defense.
His agency sent helicopters to help the Ukrainian military fighting at the besieged Azovstal factory in Mariupol in 2022.
It has carried out drone attacks on bombers, warships, air defense systems and military bases deep in Russia and annexed Crimea.
Budanov’s men have assassinated pro-Russian strongmen and disloyal Ukrainian politicians in separatist-held and Russian-occupied areas.
Another possible replacement for Zaluzhny is Oleksandr Syrsky, a seasoned military veteran who defended kyiv in early 2022 and drove Russian forces from the eastern Moscow region. Kharkov later this year.
If either replaces Zaluzhny, public opinion will certainly arouse bitter feelings toward Zelensky, but if a future counteroffensive succeeds, they “will dissolve within a few months,” Tyshkevich said.