Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismisses Ukraine’s ‘iron general’

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has dismissed Valeriy Zaluzhny as his top military commander, saying it was time for “renewal” of the country’s armed forces.

Zaluzhny will be replaced by the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, who has been credited with helping lead the successful defence of Kyiv and counteroffensive in eastern Kharkiv.

However, Syrskyi has also been criticised by his own soldiers for his Soviet-style leadership and the refusal to retreat during the battle of Bakhmut, a fight that saw precious ammunition expended, thousands of troops lost and experienced brigades decimated.

Zaluzhny’s removal follows months of tensions between the president and his top general over strategy and tactics. Reports surfaced 10 days ago that Zelenskyy had decided to change his top commander and had offered him a new role but Zaluzhny refused to resign.

The upheaval comes at what may be the most difficult time for Ukraine since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, with US military aid deadlocked in Congress and Ukrainian forces running low on ammunition as they cling on to positions in the east of the country.

Writing on X after meeting Zaluzhny, Zelenskyy said he “thanked him for the two years of defending Ukraine. We discussed the renewal that the Armed Forces of Ukraine require. We also discussed who could be part of the renewed leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The time for such a renewal is now.”

“Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said, adding that he wanted “the vision of the war to be the same for our soldiers” serving on the frontline.

The president said he had proposed to Zaluzhny that he “remain part of the team” without specifying in what role.

Zaluzhny posted on Facebook: “A decision was made about the need to change approaches and strategy. The tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024. Therefore, everyone must change and adapt to new realities as well.”

He added a picture of him and the president shaking hands and smiling.

Ukraine’s defence minister Rustem Umerov thanked Zaluzhny for his “achievements and victories”, but added: “Battles 2022, 2023 and 2024 are three different realities. 2024 will bring new changes for which we must be ready. New approaches, new strategies are needed.”

Oleksandr Syrskyi, right, gives briefing as head of Ukraine’s ground forces to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre © Press Service President Of Ukraine

Syrskyi, 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, Syrskyi is widely disliked among Ukraine’s rank-and-file soldiers.

Some western officials and analysts who advise Washington have also expressed misgivings about Syrskyi’s decision-making since February 2022 and concerns over his ability to resist political interference in operational matters.

Zaluzhny, by contrast, was hugely popular with Ukrainian troops and with the public, to the point where some allies of the president began to see him as a potential political rival.

The friction between the two had been building for a well over a year. Zaluzhny enraged the president and his advisers when in late November he admitted the land war was at a “stalemate” following Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive. In an interview with Italian television on Sunday Zelenskyy came to the same conclusion.

More recently the two men clashed over the scale of mobilisation of fresh troops needed to replenish the armed forces. The president pushed back against what he claimed was a request from his top generals for 500,000 men. His commander denied asking for that number.

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

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