Zelenskyy pledges to shake up Ukraine’s leadership

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is considering a sweeping “reset” of Ukraine’s military and civilian leadership in an attempt to reinvigorate its war effort nearly two years since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian president on Sunday evening confirmed reporting by the Financial Times last week and suggested that he was not only seeking to replace General Valery Zaluzhny, the popular commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, but also top government officials.

“Definitely a reset, a new beginning is necessary,” Zelenskyy told Italy’s Rai News. “I have something serious in mind, which is not about a single person but about the direction of the country’s leadership,” he said when asked whether he would dismiss Zaluzhny. He did not specify who else he would replace.

Zaluzhny has not commented on the report of his ousting and Zelenskyy’s latest remarks. But he has posted two selfie photos to his Facebook page with his chief of staff. “We still have a very difficult path ahead, but we can be sure that we will never feel shame,” Zaluzhny wrote alongside the photo he posted on Monday.

Zelenskyy’s remarks follow a week of speculation in Kyiv about the fate of Zaluzhny, with whom the president has had an increasingly strained relationship for more than a year. Tensions spilled out in the open in November when Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive failed to achieve its goals of retaking lost territory and cutting off Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.

Zaluzhny at the time said the war had reached a “stalemate”, leading the president to castigate him for using the term. But on Sunday evening, Zelenskyy seemed to have come to the same conclusion as his top general.

“As far as the war on the ground is concerned there is a stalemate, it’s a fact, [because] there have been delays in equipment and delays mean mistakes,” Zelenskyy said.

Last week Zelenskyy met Zaluzhny in a bid to mend ties, but the talks grew heated over the contentious issue of mobilisation. Zelenskyy has questioned the need to conscript 500,000 new troops, which Zaluzhny allegedly called for, a figure the general later denied having floated. A draft bill on the issue continues to be hotly debated in Ukraine’s parliament.

Before the meeting ended, Zelenskyy informed the general that he planned to replace him, according to four people with knowledge of the meeting. Two of the people said Zelenskyy had made clear to Zaluzhny that regardless of whether he took on a new role, he would be removed from his current position.

The two people said that Zelenskyy had offered Zaluzhny other jobs, such as leading the country’s National Security and Defense Council or the role of ambassador in the UK, but Zaluzhny declined them.

In an opinion piece for CNN on Thursday, the general complained about “the inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures”.

The change of command would come at a critical juncture in the war, as Russia started the year with unprecedented barrages aimed at overpowering Ukraine’s air defences, and with Ukrainian forces rationing weaponry, which allies have struggled to supply at the rate needed on the battlefield. Kyiv is still awaiting a vital $60bn in military and financial assistance from the US. Last week the EU agreed a €50bn four-year financial aid package, but the bloc is still quarrelling about military funding.

Ukraine’s western partners are nervous about the looming shake-up, according to two western officials from G7 nations whose governments provide arms to Ukraine. One said they were apprehensive because of Zaluzhny’s popularity among Ukraine’s rank-and-file soldiers as well as the general population, which could lead to a backlash when unity is crucial.

It remains unclear who would replace Zaluzhny, but the four people with knowledge of the matter told the FT that leading candidates were Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, and Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, head of the country’s military intelligence directorate, the GUR.

Syrsky, 58, an experienced commander, is seen as a close ally of Zelenskyy who has brought him along on several frontline visits and photo opportunities with the troops. However, Syrsky is widely disliked among Ukraine’s rank-and-file soldiers, who say that he has made decisions that unnecessarily caused the loss of previous weapons and ammunition, as well as lives.

Budanov, 38, does not have the experience of Zaluzhny and Syrsky as an army commander, but has been effective in his role of leading the GUR and revitalising the agency, which long played second fiddle to Ukraine’s much larger domestic security service, the SBU.

However, Budanov’s famously brazen tactics have put Kyiv’s western partners on edge. “He makes us nervous,” one of the western officials said.

But two people close to Syrsky and Budanov told the FT last week that they were uninterested in the post, preferring to remain in their current roles.

Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major-general and military strategist, warned against the perception of instability that Zaluzhny’s ousting could generate.

“There may be some, particularly in the US Congress, who could exploit a change in the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, and any public fallout afterwards, as additional evidence for why they shouldn’t support further packages of US assistance for Ukraine,” Ryan wrote on his blog.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS on Sunday that the White House had been notified by Kyiv of the looming changes but would not weigh in “one way or another”.

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