Ukraine’s top commander, Valery Zaluzhny, was removed from his post on Thursday, marking the most significant shake-up of Kyiv’s military leadership since the onset of Russia’s invasion nearly two years ago.
General Zaluzhny, widely respected among the populace, had been at the helm of the Ukrainian army since the beginning of the conflict, effectively repelling a vastly superior invading force during the initial stages of the war.
However, the failure of a highly publicized counteroffensive last summer, coupled with public discord with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, tarnished Zaluzhny’s standing within the president’s office.
“Today we had a frank discussion about what needs to change in the army. Urgent changes,” Zelensky said in a statement on social media.
“I have offered General Zaluzhny to continue to be part of the team of the Ukrainian state,” Zelensky wrote, adding: “I would be grateful for his consent.”
Zelensky announced that Oleksandr Syrsky, who led Ukraine’s lightning autumn 2022 counter-offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, will assume Zaluzhny’s position.
The announcement, initially made by the recently appointed defense minister, brought an end to days of speculation regarding Zaluzhny’s future.
Following more than a year of stagnant trench warfare, during which Russia’s army persistently advanced against outnumbered Ukrainian troops across the expansive front, Kyiv has recognized the imperative need for swift changes.
The new army chief, Syrsky, is confronted with a multitude of challenges as he assumes his role.
At present, significant numbers of Russian forces are engaged in an assault on the frontline Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, while Moscow has escalated artillery bombardments in the northeast Kharkiv region, aiming to compel a Ukrainian retreat.
In announcing Zaluzhny’s dismissal, Zelensky urged his new military leadership to devise a strategy to repel Russian forces. “The year 2024 can only be successful for Ukraine if we implement effective changes in the foundation of our defense, which is the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelensky emphasized.
Dubbed the “Iron General” by Ukrainian media, Zaluzhny became a symbol of the country’s resistance against Russia, boasting sky-high approval ratings among the public.
He also commanded immense respect among his troops, who often regarded him as a paternal figure.
Though he shied away from the political limelight, Zaluzhny was credited with leading some of Ukraine’s most triumphant military operations, notably the liberation of Kherson city in November 2022.
However, Zaluzhny’s public remarks, particularly to Western news outlets, became a constant source of concern for Zelensky, who was already grappling with maintaining unity regarding the issue of mobilization.
In November 2023, Zaluzhny’s statement to The Economist that the conflict with Russia was at a “stalemate” and unlikely to see a significant breakthrough was a stark admission that Zelensky vehemently denied.
Then, exactly three months later, in an opinion piece for CNN, the 50-year-old highlighted the army’s struggles with a “regulatory framework” and urged for urgent modernization efforts.
Zaluzhny emphasized that Ukraine would struggle to increase its army’s manpower unless lawmakers implemented “unpopular” measures to mobilize more individuals.
However, the proposal to mobilize an additional half a million people to replace long-serving and exhausted soldiers proved to be highly divisive in a nation already drained by continuous fighting.