Volodymyr Zelenskiy fires top Ukraine army commander

<span>Valerii Zaluzhnyi was asked to resign last week but refused to do so.</span><span>Photograph: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters</span>
Valerii Zaluzhnyi was asked to resign last week but refused to do so.Photograph: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has fired his top army commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in Ukraine’s biggest military shake-up since Russia’s full-scale invasion began nearly two years ago.

The two men met on Thursday, after which Zelenskiy posted a joint photograph thanking Zaluzhnyi for his service, but outlining the need for “renewal” in the armed forces. “The time for such a renewal is now. I proposed to General Zaluzhnyi to remain part of the team,” he wrote.

Shortly afterwards, Zelenskiy announced he had appointed Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces, as the new commander-in-chief.

Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal has been a much-discussed topic in Ukraine over the past 10 days, since details of a meeting last week in which the president asked Zaluzhnyi to resign were leaked to the media. Zaluzhnyi refused to quit.

The decision to push ahead with the dismissal is seen as a risky move for Zelenskiy, given Zaluzhnyi’s high approval ratings among Ukrainians. Syrskyi, his replacement, led the successful defence of Kyiv early in the war, and was credited with planning and executing a successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region later in 2022. However, he has a mixed reputation among frontline troops, with claims that he has been indifferent to the lives of soldiers during operations.

Some observers have suggested the decision was at least partially motivated by a fear that Zaluzhnyi could become a potential political opponent in the future, as internal debate and infighting slowly returns to Ukraine after a period of national unity following the invasion.

In an eight-minute video explaining the decision, Zelenskiy denied any political motivation, and said the difficult situation being faced by frontline troops required a new approach.

“This is not about names, and even more so, not about politics. This is about the system of our army, about the management in the armed forces and about involving the direct experiences of military commanders in this war,” he said.

Zelenskiy said part of the task for the new commander would be devising a “new approach to mobilisation”, as exhausted troops at the front complain of depleted ranks and a lack of equipment. The international situation, with the US congress blocking a major aid package for Ukraine, has not helped.

Tension between Zelenskiy and his top commander has been increasing for months, according to insiders. Zaluzhnyi rarely made public statements or gave interviews, but when he did it often irritated the president’s office. In an interview with the Economist late last year, Zaluzhnyi described the war as having reached a “stalemate”, a description Zelenskiy flatly denied.

A Kyiv-based political analyst, Volodymyr Fesenko, said: “Zelenskiy wants a miracle, he wants something that would change the situation dramatically, and Zaluzhnyi was not offering this miracle.

“There is also a psychological factor here. Zelenskiy is irritated by Zaluzhnyi, he doesn’t want to work with him, to see him any more,” he added.

Zelenskiy’s political opponents have criticised him for the vagueness of his statements about why he wants to replace Zaluzhnyi, and suggested the decision might be motivated more by a fear of Zaluzhnyi’s popularity than operational concerns.

Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from the opposition party led by the former president Petro Poroshenko, said: “They cannot find a real explanation, all we hear is that we will change direction. What direction do you want to change?.

“I’m really worried that the army will be demoralised by a dismissal without the proper explanation of the reasons. People are ready to die for Ukraine but when they see political games they will be very demoralised,” he added.

In an interview on Tuesday, Zelenskiy’s adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the president wanted “new decisions at the operational level when it comes to military strategy”, as the war enters its third year and the situation at the front becomes harder for Kyiv.

He said: “In 2023 there were particular expectations and we did not meet them. Now it’s 2024, it can’t just be a year that we sit and wait for something to happen in Russia. We need direct answers to real questions … because right now we are in stagnation.”

Zaluzhnyi was appointed by Zelenskiy as the head of the army in 2021, seven months before Russia launched its invasion. A recent biography of Zelenskiy by the journalist Simon Shuster claims that in the run-up to Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the pair often disagreed over preparations, with Zaluzhnyi more convinced of the threat of impending full-scale war than Zelenskiy. But once the war began they developed a positive and mutually respectful relationship.

Zaluzhnyi was highly regarded among troops on the frontline, with a reputation for bravery, modesty and good humour, and he became a cult figure in Ukrainian society more broadly. Fesenko said: “He became a myth. He doesn’t speak publicly often, and this meant that people started to give him idealised characteristics.”

While Zaluzhnyi has never made any statement of political ambitions, many opponents of Zelenskiy see him as a potential figure around whom to unite, and believe he will have a future in politics if he wants one. If the situation at the front continues to worsen after his departure, Zaluzhnyi’s stock is only likely to rise.

“For Zelenskiy, this is an extremely risky move,” Fesenko said.

Zaluzhnyi said he accepted that “everyone must change and adapt to new realities” and agreed there was a “need to change approaches and strategy” in the war, in a Telegram message on Thursday evening.