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Zaluzhnyi leaves as Ukraine’s army chief amid deepening rift

Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on Dec. 26, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy replaced his army chief, ending weeks of speculation over a deepening rift in the country’s wartime leadership and stoking uncertainty over the direction of the conflict with Russia.

The departure of Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, 50, was prompted by mounting acrimony between the president and his top general, according to a person familiar with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who commands the country’s land forces, will replace him.

“The time for such a renewal is now,” Zelenskiy said on social media platform X. Zaluzhnyi would remain “part of the team,” he added after meeting the officer, without specifying what the general’s new role will be.

It’s the biggest military shakeup since the start of the war. The departure of the commander-in-chief, a figure widely revered among soldiers as well as the Ukrainian people, comes at a fraught moment for the country, which is increasingly out-gunned by Russia’s war machine and running short of Western aid.

Zelenskiy said that Syrskyi, 58, who has reported to Zaluzhnyi, would present a team to “reset” the armed forces in the coming days. Born in Soviet Russia, Syrskyi played a key role in Ukraine’s successful defense of Kyiv after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion in February 2022.

The general, who gained combat experience in the eastern Donbas region fighting pro-Russian separatists after 2014, was also involved in the dramatic liberation of occupied territory around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in 2022. More controversially, Syrskyi was responsible for the defense of Bakhmut, which Russia captured last year after months of siege led to thousands of casualties on both sides.

As more than $60 billion in U.S. funding for Ukraine is snarled in the U.S. Congress, President Joe Biden’s administration has pressed Zelenskiy to sharpen the military plan to force back Russia’s invasion. That was partly out of concern among officials in Washington over the split between the Ukrainian leader and his top military official.

Not a Smooth Reshuffle

The friction between Zelenskiy and Zaluzhnyi spilled into the open in November, when the army chief told The Economist in a blunt interview that the war had settled into a stalemate — a characterization that irked his boss.

At least part of the split — the tensions date to the first months of the war — is Zelenskiy’s preference for a bolder military plan colliding with a more cautious Zaluzhnyi, according to people familiar with the military leadership.

The president’s plans for a reshuffle haven’t gone smoothly. The general refused to step down from his post at a meeting with Zelenskiy on Jan. 29, according to people familiar with the discussion. The public reaction of Zaluzhnyi’s backers to the move added to the intrigue in Kyiv.

Zaluzhnyi, an officer who is the first army chief to graduate from a military academy in independent Ukraine rather than the Soviet Union, has been credited with scrapping conventional Soviet military tactics as he’s sought to modernize the Ukrainian fighting forces.

He’s widely credited with masterminding a strategy that surprised most observers by forcing out the Russian forces from a swathe of territory seized by the Kremlin in the first year of the full-scale invasion.

The fierce resistance of Ukrainian soldiers prompted Russia to withdraw troops from around the capital and from part of the southern Kherson region — as well as the forced a chaotic surrender in the northeastern Kharkiv region — by the end of 2022.

But Ukrainian forces failed to build off those gains last year, as a counteroffensive that aimed to pierce through Russian lines toward the Sea of Azov and liberate more territory failed — leaving Ukrainian soldiers to fight against entrenched Russian troops along a front line that stretches some 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) from the eastern Donbas region to the mouth of the Dnipro River.

The army chief has also sparred with president over a new law on conscription that aims to replenish the depleted ranks of the army, but is unpopular with the Ukrainian people. Zaluzhnyi criticized the pace of drafting new soldiers as too slow, while Zelenskiy has resisted the military’s request to mobilize as many as 500,000 additional troops.

But looming above all — and posing a political risk to Zelenskiy — is Zaluzhnyi’s universal popularity in Ukraine, generally registering at more than 90%. The president’s approval rating slipped to 77% from 90% in the early months of war, according to a December opinion poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.


© 2024 Bloomberg L.P

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