Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday said that he removed Gen. Valery Zaluzhny from his position as Ukrainian commander-in-chief, a move that’s expected to backfire due to the general’s popularity both within the military and among Ukraine’s civilian population.
“Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelensky said in his evening address on Thursday. He is replacing Zaluzhny with Oleksandr Syrskyi, Ukraine’s ground forces commander, who is said to be close to the president.
Zaluzhny’s sacking was expected after Ukrainian media reported last week that he met with Zelensky on January 29 and was offered another post, but he refused to step down.
Zaluzhny has overseen the Ukrainian war effort since Russia invaded in February 2022. Zelensky said he thanked Zaluzhny for his service but that the “tasks of 2022 are different from those of 2024. Therefore, everyone must change and adapt to the new realities as well. In order to win together.”
Zaluzhny and Zelensky have long been at odds, a spat that spilled out into the public last fall when the general called the war a stalemate and said there would be no breakthrough in the counter-offensive, drawing a sharp rebuke from Zelensky.
In December, Zelensky said the military requested that 500,000 fresh troops be mobilized, but Zaluzhny denied the president’s claim. “The military command has not made a single request [to the authorities] for any figures,” he said.
Zaluzhny has been rumored to be a potential future presidential candidate if Zelensky allows elections to happen. The general has never announced that he plans to enter politics, but polling has shown the Ukrainian public trusts Zaluzhny significantly more than Zelensky, making him a real political threat.
The firing comes as Ukraine is on the verge of losing Avdiivka, a city in Donetsk that’s been key to the Ukrainian war effort since fighting broke out in the Donbas in 2014.
When rumors of Zaluzhny’s firing first surfaced, a Ukrainian battalion commander expressed dismay about the possibility in comments to The Washington Post. “My personal opinion is you can’t do something like this right now — Zaluzhny is someone 80 percent of the military considers a good authority,” the battalion commander said.
The commander added that nobody in the military likes Zaluzhny’s replacement. “For what is he being removed? It’s not clear. And who will replace him? Syrskyi? God, I hope not. No one in the army likes Syrsky,” he said. “This is a catastrophic step. When this becomes official, we’re screwed. The morale of both the military and society will go way down.”