Zelenskyy’s Military Maneuver: The Ouster of Ukraine’s Top General

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Recently, President Zelenskyy announced the ouster of Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, in the most significant shakeup of the country’s military supervision since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale attack almost two years ago.

In a statement authorizing the move, Zelenskyy stated he had decided to “renew the leadership” of the Ukrainian military as he aims to regain the initiative following last year’s erred counteroffensive. The Ukrainian President commended Zaluzhny’s contribution to the Ukrainian war action but noted that the changing character of the conflict and a “feeling of stagnation” meant cleaning changes were now necessary.

The finding to change Ukraine’s military leadership arrives following months of speculation over declining personal relations between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny. Tales of mounting tensions first started to circulate in 2022, with the Ukrainian President charged with viewing his top commander’s streaming popularity among the Ukrainian public as a possible future threat to his position.

During the early months of the war, Zaluzhny appeared as a symbol of Ukraine’s fighting liveliness as the country achieved a string of remarkable successes against the invading Russians. He was shortly dubbed the “Iron General,” and was lionized in the Ukrainian and global media as a military mastermind.

The split between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny finally reached public in late 2023, with the Ukrainian leader criticizing his military chief for saying that the war had arrived at a “stalemate” during a high-profile discussion with Britain’s The Economist magazine. In a firmly worded response, Zelenskyy denied Zaluzhny’s downbeat battlefield review, warning that it “helped the aggressor” and threatened to stir up panic among Ukraine’s Western allies. This spat emphasized Zaluzhny’s growing trend to go “off message” and question official Ukrainian positions in his dealings with the media.

Tensions have persisted to rise in recent months, with the two men increasingly at probabilities over mobilization techniques as Ukraine aims to bolster the ranks of its weakened and exhausted military. In an opinion article for CNN on the eve of his ouster, Zaluzhny voiced his frustration with “the incapacity of state institutions in Ukraine to enhance the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unwanted measures.”

Zelenskyy has aimed to downplay suggestions that today’s shakeup is the development of personal conflicts behind the settings among the country’s civilian and military leadership. “This is not about surnames. And certainly not about politics,” he said. Instead, the Ukrainian President said of the need for new leadership of the military and a more “technologically advanced” approach to the war.

Few would contend with Zelenskyy’s assertion that technological innovation should be among the top preferences for the outgunned but agile Ukrainian military. After all, Russia wants overwhelming advantages in a conventional war of decay and is seeking to wear Ukraine down while surviving the West. However, when choosing his new Commander-in-Chief, the Ukrainian leader seems to have been guided largely by the need for loyalty and stability.

Zaluzhny will be replaced as Ukraine’s highest general by Oleksandr Syrsky, one of the country’s most professional commanders who has led Ukraine’s land forces since 2019. At 58 years old, Syrsky is quite older than either Zelenskyy or Zaluzhny. He initiated his military career during the Soviet era, aiding with the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Ukraine’s new Commander-in-Chief certainly has an impressive resume as a military commander, but he has also encountered significant criticism for his role in the Battle of Bakhmut, which resulted in serious casualties on both sides. Competitors claim Syrsky is not popular within the positions of the Ukrainian army, with some caution that his appointment could lead to a descent in morale among front-line troops.

While Zelenskyy’s determination to dismiss Zaluzhny comes as no wonder, it is one of the Ukrainian leader’s biggest risks of the entire war. With no breakthroughs for more than a year, the demand for a change in tactics was evident. The breakdown in relations between the two men had also reached a point where it was making dangerous companies within the country’s leadership.

Nevertheless, the timing of Zaluzhny’s disposal looks particularly unfortunate. Ukraine currently meets growing ammunition shortages amid threatening delays in Western military aid. This is already putting severe constraints on any offensive functions and has left Ukrainian commanders with a small choice but to switch to dynamic defense. If the military situation declines further in the coming months, Zelenskyy will now discover that he is held personally responsible.

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