Amid mounting tension, Ukraine's Gen. Zaluzhny faces potential dismissal by President Zelensky
The contention between Gen. Zaluzhny and President Zelensky occasionally subsides, only to flare up again with renewed vigor. Currently, they communicate with each other more frequently through the media than in person, despite their initial promising teamwork.
Appointing Zaluzhny to lead the Ukrainian army was one of Zelensky's first decisions. The reasons were straightforward: the President wanted a young, fully trained general from independent Ukraine in this role. Most importantly, he wanted someone immune to political temptations.
In military terms, Zaluzhny’s selection was superb. He improved cooperation with NATO and drafted defense plans. However, to the presidential administration's surprise, he also showed outstanding political acumen.
The first conflicts arose shortly after a victorious battle for Kyiv. Ukraine's Security Service launched investigations into the loss of Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdiansk. One of the accused was Maj. Gen. Dmitry Marchenko, responsible for defending Odessa and the right bank of the Dnieper. His moves near Nikolaev halted the Russian offense and greatly impressed experts but not politicians. Eventually, Zaluzhny defended Marchenko, but resentment lingered.
He, however, was unable to prevent the controversial dismissal of Lt. Gen. Tatyana Ostaschenko, head of the Armed Forces of Ukraine's medical troops, in November 2023. This was seen as a political ploy by new defense minister, Rustem Umerov, because there were no valid reasons for this. Ostaschenko had initiated training programs for civilians, greatly extended the field medical service, and built a rehabilitation base for the injured.
Zaluzhny's potential dismissal?
In December, it was reported by "Ukrainian Truth" that Umerov and Zelenskiy were trying to bypass the General Staff, issuing direct orders to frontline commanders. According to the newspaper reports, corroborated by diplomats based in Kyiv, they intended to use Gen. Syrski for this purpose.
The situation peaked when the generals split into two camps around Zelenskiy and Syrski on one side and Zaluzhny on the other. Zaluzhny began to openly criticize the decisions of civilian authorities. He warned that if the country did not fully transition to war mode, the military would be forced to go on the defensive, leading to stagnation at the front. Less than a month later, his predictions were validated.
Following Zaluzhny’s further critical statements, Deputy Mariana Bezuhla called for Gen. Zaluzhny’s dismissal. Bezuhla is regarded as a pitbull of the presidential party, pushing various ideas from the presidential camp.
Zelensky, a product of television, places great importance on viewer ratings. He has demonstrated that poll ratings matter more to him than common sense or the welfare of the country. This was evident when he lowered the draft age and summoned an additional 500,000 soldiers, even as the front was weakening. The potential damage to his image outweighed these considerations.
Zaluzhny: The publicist at heart
Zaluzhny's potential dismissal had been leaked again, this time through government media and social media accounts linked to Marinsky Palace, home to the president's office. These leaks came shortly before the publication of Zaluzhny's article on CNN's website.
In the CNN article, Zaluzhny highlighted Russia's nearly unlimited mobilization capabilities, the ability to circumvent sanctions, and the depleting stock of Ukrainian ammunition, which mainly depends on allies. He criticized Zelensky's administration for avoiding "unpopular decisions" and drew attention to the weakness of the Ukrainian defense industry, led by politicians from the ruling party.
No desire to fill Zaluzhny's shoes
Despite all of this, Zaluzhny might retain his position due to public support and other factors. Rumors about potential successors have been circulating in Kyiv since the previous year. However, no clear candidate has come forward, perhaps due to the popularity of Zaluzhny and the difficult times ahead.
According to reports by "The Washington Post", the Ukrainian authorities had already informed the White House about their intention to dismiss Gen. Zaluzhny. Washington, according to the newspaper, did not seek to influence Zelenskiy's decision.
Unfortunately, it seems like Kyiv's leaders have forgotten that Russia was on the doorstep of the capital approximately two years ago. Now, the war is treated as a common occurrence. The military is aware of this and their only recourse is to appeal to the politicians' rationale.