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Has Zelensky walked into a trap? 

The Ukrainian president’s plan to oust his popular army chief has backfired – and left him with few good options.

By Lawrence Freedman

On 1 February CNN published an article by General Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The timing was intriguing. Three days before publication there were credible reports, though officially denied, that President Volodymyr Zelensky had sought to move the 50-year-old general to a new, lesser job as head of the National Security Council, and that Zaluzhny had refused. This had left Zelensky with something of a predicament, given the general’s popularity and the lack of an obvious successor. He would have to dismiss Zaluzhny to assert his authority.

As with Zaluzhny’s previous articles – and he has written a number – this CNN one combines reflections on the military trends of the past 80 years and an attempt to describe a route to a Ukrainian victory in the war against Russia. This has become more challenging now that Ukraine can no longer rely on the previous levels of support from allies, and because the international sanctions regime has not restricted the Russian military industrial complex as much as hoped. Zaluzhny stresses the importance of drones and notes how they are reshaping warfare, and of wearing down the economic capabilities of the enemy. His piece turns into something of a manifesto as he outlines a five-month plan to prepare the Ukrainian armed forces for the demands of the coming stage of the war, involving changes to the organisation of the armed forces and re-equipping. In a longer version he details how the Russian enemy had manpower advantages and grumbled about the “inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the state of manning of the Defence Forces without a use of unpopular measures”.

This highlights one of his main areas of disagreement with Zelensky: Zaluzhny has argued for the mobilisation of up to 500,000 troops. The president considers this unrealistic. Recruitment is already a challenging matter and that is a lot of people to train and equip when funds are scarce.

This is just the latest in a series of quarrels between the two, which can be traced back to the period leading up to the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022. Then, Zaluzhny took the threat more seriously than Zelensky, who was worried that a war scare would cause panic and damage the economy. This meant that measures to deal with the invasion were almost too late. There have been disputes since over what should be prioritised in the military effort: Zaluzhny has been more inclined to focus on the south, facing Crimea, while Zelensky has urged for the Donbas region in the east to not be neglected, as this is Russia’s main objective for its offensive. Post-mortems on what went wrong with last summer’s counteroffensive point, in part, to the split in Ukraine’s military effort for why it had such disappointing results. A previous article by Zaluzhny, published in the Economist in November, came in the aftermath of this disappointment. He wrote about a “stalemate”, a characterisation Zelensky made clear he did not share.

Tension in civil-military relations is natural, even healthy. The issues confronting a national leadership at a time of war are difficult, with many lives and the very survival of the state often at stake with each big strategic decision. Political leaders must think about sustaining morale at home and international support, and what moves might mean for future ceasefires and peace deals. Military leaders must ensure that political objectives make operational sense. In the end, however, in democratic societies the generals are expected to be accountable to civilians, and the head of state always has the option to replace them if he or she lacks confidence in their competence and judgement.

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This often happens. In discussions of the Zelensky-Zaluzhny spat there have been numerous references to Abraham Lincoln’s search for a commander with the necessary aggression to win the civil war, or Harry Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur in 1951 during the Korean War for insubordination. Successful generals can be as much of a problem for civilian leaders as the unsuccessful – because they may become political rivals. MacArthur was touted as a potential Republican nominee for president. From the summer of 2022, according to Zelensky’s biographer Simon Shuster, there were suspicions in the president’s camp that Zaluzhny had his own ambitions. Shuster suggests these suspicions were not entirely without foundation.

This complicates Zelensky’s calculations. Without any government role Zaluzhny can maintain his profile and become a rallying figure for the opposition. Scheduled elections for this year will be postponed because of martial law. It is hard to organise voting when there is fighting, a chunk of territory is occupied, and when many people are out of the country. But there will be an election eventually, and for now Zaluzhny is more popular. Reports of his potential dismissal drew criticism from Zelensky’s opponents, including the previous president Petro Poroshenko who warned this would damage national unity at a critical time. 

The risk for Zelensky’s position increases if 2024 proves to be even more difficult than last year. If the mobilisation is insufficient and forces get stretched, enabling Russian breakthroughs, it will be on him. It will be assumed any successor to Zaluzhny is implementing the president’s preferred strategy.

Nor is it clear who can succeed Zaluzhny. Reports suggest that Zelensky wants a refresh, and greater efficiency in the military effort. Kyrylo Budanov, head of military intelligence and close to Zelensky could be presented as one of a new generation of leaders capable of doing this, and with developing new approaches to hurting the Russians. But he is untested in this sort of command role and, at any rate, does not appear to want the job. That leaves General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukrainian land forces, who has the right experience, but whose approach looks back to the Soviet days rather than forward to a new era. He is less trusted among ordinary soldiers as having shown himself in the battle for Bakhmut too ready to sacrifice men rather than abandon untenable positions. Nor is it clear that he would have a better rapport with counterparts in Nato countries, who have come to know Zaluzhny well.  

This situation needs to be resolved soon. Zelensky needs a commander-in-chief who he trusts and can take the fight forward. But if that is what he wants he also needs to be sure that any replacement for Zaluzhny can deliver. Would the president demand for example an early Ukrainian offensive to demonstrate that there is no stalemate, even though manpower and ammunition are still in short supply? In practice, whoever is in charge, the next few months are going to be tough. They are bound to involve defending against Russian offensives and getting Ukrainian forces ready for when they can once again take the initiative. A change in commander-in-chief is unlikely to mean much of a change in strategy. Given Ukraine’s limited options right now, it is likely to follow the course set out by Zaluzhny in his latest article. The key task is to reach early decisions on mobilisation and get them implemented. And to demonstrate that the civil and military spheres are united.

[See also: Can Zelensky survive the stalemate?]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?