Anxiety at the very top of Ukraine’s wartime government has been laid bare, after rumours swept Kyiv on Monday that the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was about to fire his armed-forces commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, after weeks of reported tensions. To oust one of the most popular figures in Ukraine would be deeply controversial, and would mark a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. So far, Zelensky has not announced that the general is being replaced. But that does not mean that Zaluzhny’s job is safe. It may simply be that his replacement has not yet been lined up.
It was not the first time a plan to remove the general has been mooted, but it was the most convincing. A dramatic day began with leaks from MPs, who had been informed, possibly strategically, about a “set of documents” sent to a security committee for signing. Later, sources in the general staff and close to Zaluzhny confirmed that a shake-up was in the works. The Economist was able to confirm that an early-evening meeting took place at which the president informed his general that he had decided to dismiss him. Zaluzhny was offered another role: secretary of the national security council. He turned it down.
News of the plan was soon leaked to local media. The defence ministry and presidential palace denied that the general had been dismissed, which was technically true. But the problems – the dysfunctional relationship between the president and his general, and suspicions in the president’s office that the general harbours political ambitions – have not gone away. Both men look damaged by the row, and the disputes between Ukraine’s political leadership and its military command are worrying Ukraine’s main allies.
Two generals are being mentioned as contenders for Zaluzhny’s job: Oleksandr Syrsky, 58; and Kyrylo Budanov, 38. Both are considered to be close to the presidential team. Syrsky, one of the army’s most experienced officers, was the operational brain behind two of Ukraine’s most remarkable victories against Russia in 2022: around Kyiv and in the Kharkiv region. But his harsh approach to fighting has made him unpopular in parts of the military. Last year he sacrificed battle-hardened commanders in the arguably pointless defence of the small town of Bakhmut.
Budanov, Ukraine’s enigmatic and ambitious head of military intelligence, embraces a much more unconventional and untested approach to command. He has not led conventional armed forces before – or an organisation anything like the size of the Ukrainian army, which now employs approximately a million people. Some have suggested he turned the job down at the last minute. A close colleague insists that Budanov did not angle for Zaluzhny’s position, but that he also had no right to turn a military position down. “It’s not you that makes these decisions,” the colleague adds.
The rumours come at a critical time. Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive failed, and it faces uncertainty over the degree of foreign support it can expect. The battle over Zaluzhny’s future is unlikely to make renewed funding any more likely, as the commander is highly regarded in the West. Ukrainian troops on the front line are already complaining of a shortage of ammunition. Russian units are firing at least five times as many shells as their enemy, and making modest territorial gains in the east of the country.
Russian propagandists have gleefully poured scorn on Ukraine. “Whether Zaluzhny is fired or not, whether he is replaced by Budanov or Mudanov – chaos on their farm is useful. And it looks good,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, the boss of Russia Today, a Kremlin mouthpiece, on her Telegram channel.
The defence of Kyiv and north-east Ukraine at the start of the war made Zaluzhny a cult figure. Polls repeatedly showed him more popular than his president; this created tension between the two men, whose relations were initially good. In particular, the general’s endorsement of a charitable foundation set up in his name in April 2022 was seen by some as too political. Zaluzhny claimed to hold no political ambitions, but parted company with several advisers following the scandal.
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