Amid tensions, Zelensky fired Ukraine’s popular military chief. Here’s what we know about their decision

(CNN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the dismissal of the country’s top commander, General Valery Zaluzny, in the biggest military blow since the start of a full-scale invasion of Russia nearly two years ago. He will be replaced by another high-ranking military officer, who had led the defense of Kiev after the Russian invasion.

The president’s move comes as tensions between Zelensky and the hugely popular military chief escalated following the failure of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-offensive, and as Ukraine faces renewed Russian attacks, shortages of manpower and ammunition. And US aid has been blocked in Congress.

In a Telegram post sent shortly before the formal announcement, Zelensky said he met with Zaluzny and “discussed what kind of renewal the Armed Forces of Ukraine needs.”

“The time has come for such a renewal,” Zelensky wrote.

Zaluzny’s replacement will be Oleksandr Sirsky, who has served as commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces since 2019.

Zaluzny wrote on his Telegram channel on Thursday that “the tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024.”

“Therefore, everyone also has to change and adapt to the new realities. (We) just met the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. This was an important and serious conversation. “It was decided that we needed to change our approach and strategies,” he said.

The differences between the two men had been simmering for several months, but appeared to escalate late last year, when Zaluzny said in a long essay and interview in The Economist magazine in November that the war had reached a stalemate.

Writing after a Ukrainian counter-attack was largely repulsed by strong Russian defences, he warned that a great technological leap “is probably not a deep and beautiful progress”, but rather a balance of catastrophic loss and destruction.

Valery Zaluzhny photographed at a ceremony commemorating the Independence Day of Ukraine in Kiev on August 24, 2023. (Credit: Sergey Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images)

His comments drew immediate criticism from Zelensky’s office, which said such comments about the war only benefited Russia.

More recently, the two leaders clashed over whether Ukraine needed a large-scale mobilization effort. The army chief had suggested that up to five lakh recruits were needed, which Zelensky opposed.

The President declared at a press conference in December that mobilization was a “very delicate” issue and that he wanted to hear more arguments in favor of it before being fully prepared to support the measure.

“This is a very serious figure,” Zelensky said. “It’s a question of people, of justice, of defence. It’s also a financial question.”

Last week, as the rumors grew, Zaluzny expressed his frustration over the matter exclusively to CNN, citing “the inability of Ukrainian state institutions to improve the human resource level of our armed forces without resorting to unpopular measures. ” was mentioned. These comments were highly unusual for a man generally reluctant to speak in public.

A political bet for Zelensky

When Russia launched its invasion in February 2022, many of Ukraine’s allies feared that Kiev would fall within days and the rest of the country within weeks. But Ukrainian forces, led by Zaluzny, managed to drive Moscow’s forces from the capital and, later that year, recapture large parts of the southern and eastern regions occupied by Russia in the first weeks of the war.

Ukraine hoped to push Moscow’s forces back further in 2023, but battlefield success proved elusive.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive, launched last June, aimed to advance south towards the Sea of ​​Azov, split the Russian army in two and cut the land bridge with Crimea.

But Ukraine’s progress was modest. His army attempted to advance from Orikhiv towards Tokmak, but only reached Robotine, 20 kilometers south. Russia still controls about a fifth of Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine has again been put on the defensive due to a wave of Russian attacks on much of the front line, with heavy fighting in the northeastern Kharkiv region and Zaporizhia in the south. Russia has also resumed its airstrikes against cities across the country, and Ukraine has warned that its air defenses are at risk of being hit.

Zaluzhany’s dismissal is a political gamble by Zelensky. Despite the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the now former military chief remains one of the country’s most popular leaders. According to a poll by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology, 88% of Ukrainians support the general. Zelensky’s approval rating, while also high, was notably low, at 62%.

Analysts have long speculated that Zaluzny might one day become Zelensky’s political opponent in future elections, although the general has shown little political ambition so far.

In his article for CNN, he also suggested that Ukrainian leaders have failed to address problems in the defense industry, which has led to production disruptions and ammunition shortages.

At the same time, Zaluzny warned that Ukraine “is facing reduced military support from key allies” as they become embroiled in their own political tensions and distracted by conflicts elsewhere.

He said the best way for the Ukrainian military to avoid getting stuck in “positional warfare”, in which fighting takes place on permanent, fortified front lines, is for Ukraine to “master” drone systems, which Zaluzny called the “central engine”. Said. Of this war.”

Who will replace Zaluzhny?

He will be replaced by 59-year-old Syrsky, who began his military career while training in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet Union.

With the independence of Ukraine in 1991, he became a major general in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2009. He played a leading role in Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders in the eastern Donbass region in 2014 and 2015.

Two years later he became commander of all Ukrainian forces involved in the counter-terrorist operation, as the conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine became known.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Syrsky led the defense of Kiev, and later that year commanded a successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, driving Russian forces from hundreds of settlements.

But the move could prove controversial among Ukrainian forces. A Ukrainian soldier fighting in the east of the country told CNN he was not convinced by the change in military leadership.

“I think Sirski is a suitable person. But I’m sorry that (outgoing army chief) Zaluzny has been dismissed. I don’t think things will be easy at the front. Sirski is close to the authorities, but he needs to do that.” The need is independent,” the soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNN.

Another, a frontline commander who also served in eastern Ukraine, was more critical of the appointment.

“You can’t fire a commander in the middle of a war. Nothing good will come of it. It’s playing into the hands of the Russians,” the commander told CNN on condition of anonymity.

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