Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he is weighing a possible dismissal of the country’s top military officer, a prospect that has shocked the population fighting Russia’s invasion.
Asked whether he was considering the ouster of General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Zelenskiy told Italian RAI TV in an interview released late on Sunday that he was thinking about it as part of a broader issue of setting the country’s path.
He said that “a reset, a new beginning is necessary” and it is “not about a single person but about the direction of the country’s leadership”.
“I’m thinking about this replacement but you can’t say here we replaced a single person,” Zelenskiy said.
“When we talk about this, I mean a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military. If we want to win we must all push in the same direction, convinced of victory, we cannot be discouraged, let our arms fall, we must have the right positive energy.”
Zelenskiy’s comments marked his first confirmation that he was considering firing the widely popular general, a possibility that caused an uproar in Ukraine and delighted the Kremlin as the war approaches its second anniversary.
According to Ukrainian and foreign media reports, Zelenskiy last week offered Zaluzhnyi to resign but the general refused.
Zaluzhnyi has not commented on the issue.
The tensions between the president and Zaluznyi have been rising as the country grapples with dire ammunition and personnel shortages following a failed counter-offensive.
The need for a broad mobilisation to fill the ranks has reportedly been one of the areas of disagreement.
Zelenskiy said at the end of last year that he had turned down the military’s request to mobilise up to 500,000 people, demanding more details about how it would be organised and paid for.
A rift between Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskiy first broke into the open last autumn when the general acknowledged in an interview with the Economist that the fighting with Russia had stalemated.
The president strongly denied that was the case.
Zaluzhnyi is viewed as a hero by most Ukrainians, with the memories of the stunning underdog victories against Russia in 2022 outweighing the failure of last year’s counter-offensive in the minds of many.
“I think this dismissal would not be appropriate now because on the field of battle you do not change commanders,” said a 31-year-old anti-tank unit commander who asked to be introduced by his call sign, Tiger.
Tiger’s brigade, the 59th, are fighting on a section of the front in the eastern Donetsk region near Avdiivka, a town built around a vast coking plant which has borne the brunt of Russia’s second winter assault.
The soldier, choosing his words carefully and speaking in the basement of a house where he was resting between frontline rotations, said a lot depended on who would replace him.
“The most popular (commanders) are those who are here, and who fight alongside the lads, who sit in the trenches,” he said.
He added that whoever was in charge should ensure the arrival of fresh replacement troops and a larger supply of drones – both things that Zaluzhnyi has pushed for.
The importance of the identity of the next commander was echoed by 33-year-old company commander Ihor.
“Before you fire someone from their post, especially such an important one, you need to be sure who will replace this person and what their vision is for the future of this situation,” he said.
“If our government wants to change someone, these changes should only make things better, and not worse.”
In a December 2023 poll of Ukrainians by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 72 per cent said they would view the dismissal of Zaluzhnyi negatively and only 2 per cent would see it positively.
Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal could fuel uncertainty among Ukraine’s allies.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that the talk about Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal exposed rifts in the Ukrainian leadership.
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