Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday he had removed his top general in the most significant leadership shakeup since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two years ago.
While praising General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander who led the country’s war effort for two years, Mr Zelensky said “urgent changes” were needed to ensure victory.
“Starting today, a new leadership team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelensky said in an evening address to the nation, adding that he had met with General Zaluzhny and thanked for his service.
General Zaluzhny will be replaced by General Oleksandr Syrsky, head of Ukraine’s ground forces, the president said.
The upheaval comes at a precarious time for Ukraine in the war, amid intensifying Russian attacks, U.S. skepticism about aid to kyiv and tensions between Ukraine’s civilian and military leaders. It remains unclear whether General Zaluzhny, very popular in the Ukrainian army and society, had resigned or been removed from his post.
General Zaluzhny led Ukraine’s war effort from the initial successful defense against Russian attack to the past year of bloody and inconclusive fighting along a front that has barely moved but where Ukrainian soldiers once again find themselves undermanned and outgunned.
Rumors began circulating online last week in Ukraine that General Zaluzhny, 50, had been dismissed from his post, prompting a denial from the president’s office. A Ukrainian lawmaker said the two met on Jan. 29 but the fate of the country’s top military commander has not been decided.
Two Ukrainian officials said Mr. Zelensky’s government had planned to fire the general all along, and only backed away briefly after the news leaked, which sparked backlash from some leaders Ukrainian politicians and soldiers.
Friction between the president and the general had been simmering since the start of the war in a rivalry largely hidden from the public amid military successes. The schism deepened last fall, when General Zaluzhny published an essay declaring the fighting at a stalemate, contradicting Mr. Zelensky’s continued and hopeful assertions of progress.
The breach followed a Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by billions of dollars in Western arms donations, which failed to achieve a breakthrough, despite the cost of thousands of Ukrainian casualties.
Most recently, the two men publicly disagreed over a Ukrainian plan to recruit up to half a million troops to replenish the army to counter new ground attacks by Russia in the eastern Donbass region. Even though Ukrainians still overwhelmingly support the fight against Russia’s full-scale invasion, the mobilization is expected to be unpopular. Many men who intended to volunteer have already done so.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have found themselves on the defensive as Russia launches violent attacks along the front line. kyiv received a boost to its war effort last week when the Approved by the European Union a $54 billion aid package that will help avert a Ukrainian financial crisis in the short term.
But lawmakers in Washington failed this week to reach a deal that would provide an additional $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, aid that Ukrainian officials and military analysts view as critical to the war effort. from kyiv. Senate Republicans blocked a measure Wednesday that would have provided funding, leading Democrats to propose an alternative bill that was being debated Thursday.
As speculation about the military commander’s fate reached fever pitch, General Zaluzhny maintained his usual public profile. He paid tribute to a touchstone of Ukrainian military history, praising a small group of Ukrainian soldiers who repelled a much larger Russian invasion force marching on Kiev, the capital, in 1918 The battle, he said, “became a symbol of heroism and self.” -the sacrifice of the younger generation in the fight against the aggressor.”
“We thank all those who are currently defending the state, its independence and its future,” he said. Over the past two weeks, he has made no public comments.
When the war with Russia began in 2014, General Zaluzhny, who was educated at a Soviet cadet school in Odessa but served most of his career in the Ukrainian army after independence, was appointed deputy commander of forces fighting along a violent section of the front line near the border. in the eastern towns of Debaltseve and Bakhmut, where he gained experience commanding troops in combat.
Mr. Zelensky named General Zaluzhny commander of the military staff in 2021, before the Russian invasion. Military analysts credited the general with preparing the army in the weeks and days before the attack by sending jets to reserve airfields and moving troops from barracks that were then bombed.
Mr. Zelensky’s frustration with his top general burst into the public eye in early November, after General Zaluzhny published his essay calling the war “adead end.” The Ukrainian president suggested the comment was helpful to the Russians, a striking rebuke.
Around the same time, the presidency replaced one of General Zaluzhny’s deputies, head of the special operations forces, without providing any explanation. He also fired the head of Ukraine’s medical forces.
Criticism of General Zaluzhny reached a new level in late November, when Mariana Bezuhla, an MP and former member of Mr. Zelensky’s political party, appeared to call for the commander’s departure, accusing him of failing to carefully plan the next step of the war. .
“If the military leadership cannot provide any plans for 2024 and all their mobilization proposals boil down to the fact that more personnel are needed,” Ms. Bezuhla wrote on Facebook“then these leaders should go.”
Opinion polls have consistently ranked the president and general as the most trusted figures in Ukraine during the war. Over the fall, Mr. Zelensky’s popularity plummeted while General Zaluzhny maintained consistently high levels of support.
General Zaluzhny’s high reputation among the Ukrainian public has led to speculation that he could be a potential challenger to Mr Zelensky in the next election, prompting some in the country to view them as political rivals.
The military leader earned the nickname “Iron General” for his decisive leadership of the army when Russian forces crossed the border en masse last year and headed toward Ukraine’s main cities. Under his command, Ukrainian troops stopped Russian forces at the gates of the capital and forced them to retreat.
Months later, Ukrainian troops slammed into Russian positions in a counteroffensive that recaptured thousands of square miles of northeastern territory, including dozens of towns.
But the general also grappled with the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south this summer — a push that many in Ukraine and the West hoped would divide Russian troops and show that Ukraine was making steady progress in the war. The operation failed to break through the formidable Russian defensive lines, with Ukrainian troops advancing only a few kilometers, at the cost of a bloody sacrifice for both sides.
In his November essay, General Zaluzhny said that if Ukraine did not receive more advanced weapons and technology, the country would be mired in a long war in which Russia would have the upper hand.
Constant Méheut , Marc Santora and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from kyiv, Ukraine.