Zelensky vs Zaluzhniy, a simmering feud adds strain to Ukraine's military amid Russian conflict
The conflict between Zelensky and Zaluzhniy has been simmering for a while, and it seems it's now escalating. Earlier this week, Western newspapers "The New York Times" and "Financial Times" reported that the president intends to dismiss the general. "FT" described it as "the most significant shakeup in Ukraine's military leadership since the full-fledged Russian incursion started".
As per "NYT", Zelensky was on the verge of firing Zaluzhniy, but he halted his plans when media rumors surfaced on Monday. "FT", conversely, suggested that Zelensky offered Zaluzhniy a new role the same day, which he declined. The situation is complicated by the fact that – according to experts and insiders – no evident replacement for Zaluzhniy is currently on the horizon.
What is the nature of this conflict? The president and the general have been in a prolonged dispute over the war's outcomes. And the results are not favoring Ukraine and its military. The Ukrainian counter-offensive, launched last spring, has unfortunately failed. No progress has been made in expelling the Russians from the occupied regions of the country or breaking into a "corridor" – ie, dividing the southern coast and southeastern areas occupied by Russia.
"Zelensky tried to back Zaluzhniy into a corner"
Commander Wiesław Goździewicz, a NATO operational planning expert, explains that recent reports validate rumors about strained relations between the president and the general. He recalls that whispers of such tensions first emerged during the defense of Bahmut.
Bahmut was nearly defended "to the last soldier". According to Ukrainian media information, reveals Commander Goździewicz, both General Zaluzhniy and General Oleksandr Syrsky (commander of Ukraine's land forces), solicited Zelensky's approval to extend the defense of Bahmut.
I found it strange, and even think that Zelensky sought to corner Zaluzhniy with a fait accompli in the form of a decision to continue defending Bahmut, despite Gen. Zaluzhniy's disapproval - says Commander Goździewicz.
He also revisited an article published in "Financial Times" a month ago, which hinted at divergent views on the war between President and General. Zelensky, as the commander describes, maintains an optimistic outlook despite contrasting information provided by General Zaluzhniy. The latter argued that staunchly defending the city was militarily illogical. The city of Bahmut was ultimately lost by Ukraine, with considerable casualties on both sides.
A Ukrainian soldier: "Zaluzhniy has great authority"
What's a typical Ukrainian soldier's perspective on all this? Jurij (who prefers not to disclose his surname), a volunteer aiding the medical service, stated in an o2.pl interview that the information leaked to the media certainly doesn't aid Ukraine's wartime efforts, yet they mostly occur "over the heads of the soldiers".
I'm pretty relaxed about this conflict. If Zaluzhniy or Zelensky were to depart, someone else would step in... The old American saying goes, "you don't change horses midstream". Zaluzhniy is highly revered among the soldiers, no question about that. But the view among many active-duty officers - those truly in the thick of battle - could be different," the soldier underscores.
However, he confesses to being puzzled by the entire situation. He questions why politicians would casualtly remove a respected and well-liked officer who is held in high esteem by most of the military. A recent socio-political poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), conducted on December 18, 2023, showed that Zaluzhniy commanded the support of 88% of the respondents and Zelensky, 62%.
Zaluzhniy is being criticized for the botched offensive a year ago, but the soldiers recognize that without air support, achieving success was implausible. There is also an attempt to label him as someone who overlooked corruption and pilferage of military assistance. But whatever tension exists between the president and the general, it's largely removed from general soldierly concerns. They are more focused on their duties and the fight at hand - Jurij says.
Still, he refrains from judging either party outright. He admits to being uninformed about the conflict's specifics. He also insists that sensible people like the president and the general should abstain from emotional reactions and conduct themselves wisely and responsibly, considering that the conflict has been ongoing for nearly two years.
Zaluzhniy is a soldier, an officer - his duty is to defend the country and he will do exactly that. I trust that Zelensky and his inner circle will allow him to carry out his duties without interference - says Jurij.