As Ukraine battles a ferocious Russian offensive and its leaders wait to see whether the West will approve more than $100 million in aid, the Kiev government faces a latent distraction: a summit tumult centered on the fate of Ukraine. the highest military commander.
Speculation raged Monday in political and military circles, in the media and online, that President Volodymyr Zelensky had fired commander General Valeriy Zaluzhny, with rumors becoming so widespread that the president’s office was forced to publicly deny it.
“There were no dismissals,” presidential spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov told Ukrainian media.
“I can’t say anything else,” he said. Asked if the president intended to fire the general, Mr. Nikiforov replied: “I tell you once again: there is no topic of conversation.”
The brief response only fueled further speculation, and on Tuesday the capital was still preoccupied with whether the general would stay or go.
A former senior Ukrainian official said Mr. Zelensky’s government considered firing the general, but backtracked on Monday evening when the news leaked. Now they are slowing down the process, the official said. A Ukrainian lawmaker who had been briefed on the plans gave a similar account, saying the two men met Monday evening but no decisions were made. One sticking point for the government was that there was no immediate replacement to replace General Zaluzhny, the source said.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal military matters.
The general’s role has been in question since it became clear in the fall that the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south of the country had failed.
Former Ukrainian president and opposition figure Petro O. Poroshenko was one of several prominent politicians who quickly took a stand on the rumors.
Defending Gen. Zaluzhny, he said the military commander had become the personification of unity needed across the country during two years of brutal fighting to save the nation from Russian subjugation.
A decision to remove him would not be motivated “by military and strategic considerations,” he said during a trip to Brussels, adding: “It is based on emotions and jealousy.”
Around the same time he posted his statement on social media, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry released a statement saying the speculation was unfounded.
On the front line, where Ukrainians fight intense and bloody battles every day, uncertainty over the general’s fate would be a blow to morale, said some soldiers reached by telephone. “Zaluzhny enjoys very high authority in the army,” said Lt. Pavlo Velychko, who serves in Ukraine’s 101st territorial defense brigade. Firing the general, he said, would be “a signal to commanders of all ranks: No matter how well you do your job, you can be removed from office for no reason.”
The tumult in the leadership ranks comes at a particularly precarious time for Ukraine in the war. Russia has stepped up its attacks on the battlefield at the same time as it has stepped up its propaganda campaign aimed at undermining support for Ukraine in the West. Ukraine, meanwhile, is forced to wait to see how the political interests of the United States and Europe will affect its chances of getting the aid it desperately needs.
The conflict between Ukraine’s military and civilian leaders has been part of the discussions in kyiv for months, as has speculation about a change in military leadership.
Neither the men nor their aides did much to dispel reports of tensions. Although Mr. Zelensky and General Zaluzhny have appeared together at photo ops and hosted events, the country’s two most powerful leaders have never addressed the nation together in any meaningful way.
Frosty relations and a lack of explanation of the general’s position have become problems in themselves, said Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from the opposition European Solidarity party. This was uncharacteristic of Mr. Zelensky, a former actor often praised for his communication skills, he said, adding: “The absence of communication amounts to confirmation of a problem.”
Friction between the president and his top general simmered, mostly behind the scenes, soon after the Russian invasion and as General Zaluzhny’s popularity soared with military victories. Among Ukrainian political analysts, the general is seen as a plausible challenger to Mr. Zelensky if elections, suspended by martial law, were to resume.
The schism deepened last fall, when General Zaluzhny published an essay declaring the fighting at a stalemate, contradicting Mr. Zelensky’s hopeful claims of progress. The breach followed a Ukrainian counter-offensive staged with billions of dollars in Western weapons that failed to achieve a breakthrough while costing thousands of Ukrainian casualties.
More recently, the two men publicly clashed over whether civilian or military leaders should be responsible for a plan to recruit up to half a million men to replenish the army. The plan is likely to be unpopular and taint the leaders most closely associated with it, Ukrainian commentators noted.
This week’s rumors were of a slightly different nature – with a quicker and more widespread reaction than in the past.
While the Kremlin would surely seek to take advantage of any upheaval within the Ukrainian command to further undermine support for Ukraine, Moscow itself has turned to a rotating group of military figures to lead its war effort.
President Vladimir V. Putin appointed Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov a year ago, firing Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had been in office only three months. General Surovikin had replaced General Alexander Dvornikov.
General Gerasimov has not been seen in public this year, fueling rumors that he was injured or killed in a Ukrainian strike while visiting the occupied Crimean peninsula.
Ukrainian military intelligence said it did not know whether the Russian warlord was alive.
“This is information that requires careful additional verification,” said Andriy Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence ministry. “That would be very good news for all of us, but we are still verifying it.”
Friction between civilian and military leaders has been a staple of many wars. President Abraham Lincoln fired his Army of the Potomac commander, General George B. McClellan, during the Civil War, and during the Korean War, President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur. But how military changes are managed often determines how they are perceived.
If any decision to replace the general is seen as a purely political rather than military necessity, Mr. Zelensky could face a backlash not only from opposition politicians, but also from public opinion, which , according to polls, holds General Zaluzhny in the highest esteem.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from kyiv, Ukraine and Eric Schmitt of Washington.