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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is preparing to replace his top general in what would be the biggest shake-up of Ukraine’s military command since Russia’s full-scale invasion began two years ago.
Zelenskyy on Monday offered Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a new role as a defence adviser but the general refused, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Two of them said Zelenskyy had made clear to Zaluzhny that regardless of whether he took the role, he would be removed from his current position.
The four people said that while a decision had been made in Zelenskyy’s office to dismiss Zaluzhny, he may not be ousted for some time after reports of the plans appeared in Ukrainian media.
The president’s offer of a new role to the general follows months of speculation about his fate, fed by reports of tension between the two men.
Their strained relationship spilled into the open in November after Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive failed to achieve its ambitious goals of retaking lost territory and cutting off Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.
At the time, Zaluzhny said that the war had reached a “stalemate”, leading the president’s office to castigate him for using the term.
On Monday, Zelenskyy’s spokesperson, Serhiy Nykyforov, and the defence ministry denied reports about Zaluzhny’s dismissal.
“Dear journalists, we immediately answer everyone: No, this is not true,” the ministry wrote on its Telegram channel without providing additional context. The president’s office declined to comment further on Tuesday.
The removal of Zaluzhny would also cause an uproar within Ukraine’s rank-and-file military and civil society, among whom he enjoys huge support.
In a Ukrainian poll released in December, 88 per cent of Ukrainians said they trusted Zaluzhny compared with 62 per cent who said they trusted Zelenskyy.
“This will have a very, very negative impact on the [morale] of the army,” Ukrainian military historian Mykhailo Zhyrokhov told Kyiv’s Radio NV, who added that he believed the rumours to be “fabrication”.
Replacing Zaluzhny could also unnerve Ukraine’s western partners, including military officials who have worked closely with the general over the past two years to devise battlefield strategies.
The war is at a critical juncture as Kyiv waits to see whether it will receive billions of dollars’ worth of critical military and financial assistance from the US and the EU.
Zaluzhny has not commented on the reports of his dismissal. On Monday, however, he published an undated selfie with his chief of the general staff Serhiy Shaptala on Facebook in which both were wearing Ukrainian army sweatshirts.
Reports of Zaluzhny’s imminent ousting began circulating on Monday evening in local media and on anonymous local Telegram channels. They also appeared in public comments from politicians closely aligned with former president Petro Poroshenko, whom Zelenskyy defeated in the 2019 election.
According to all four people with knowledge of the issue, it is currently unclear who would replace Zaluzhny as commander-in-chief.
Possible candidates are Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, and Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the country’s military intelligence directorate. Both men are close to Zelenskyy.
Ukrainian news outlet Mirror of the Week also reported the discussions around Zaluzhny’s possible dismissal, citing sources in Zelenskyy’s office. Several other media cited sources who said that Zaluzhny had already been dismissed or would be let go imminently.
A four-star career military man dubbed the “Iron General” by admirers, Zaluzhny, 50, was appointed by Zelenskyy to the post of commander-in-chief in July 2021. He has overseen Ukraine’s military’s operations since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
He is credited with orchestrating several of Ukraine’s military successes, including the defence of Kyiv in the first days of Russia’s invasion, and the successful counteroffensives in the eastern Kharkiv region and the southern regional capital of Kherson in autumn 2022.
Zelenskyy has reportedly sought to keep Zaluzhny, whom he viewed as a potential competitor, out of the public eye and bypassed him during key moments of the war by communicating orders to the general’s subordinates.