Ukraine’s political and military leaders are waging a power battle at the worst possible time. On Monday afternoon, the news, announced by the media and opposition politicians, broke that the head of the armed forces, Valeri Zaluzhni, would be fired that evening by President Volodymyr Zelensky. Hours passed with multiple anonymous sources, close to the general and the president, leaking information about a possible replacement, until the Defense Ministry and Zelensky’s spokesperson denied it. The damage is already irreparable, analysts say, as the distance between the two is confirmed. The schism also occurs when Russia once again controls the war front and Ukraine shows no signs of being able to reclaim lost territory.
Zelensky summoned Zaluzhni on Monday afternoon to ask him to resign, according to media outlets such as ZNthe correspondent of The Economist Oliver Carroll or journalist Yuri Butusov, head of the media Internet censorship and considered a trusted man of the general. These media and others, as well as political figures like opponent Oleksii Goncharenko, assured that the cessation decree was already on the table. Zaluzhni, according to ZN, refused to resign and told Zelensky that if he wanted to replace him, he would have to fire him. Butusov added that Zelensky must consult his key international allies on the decision.
Zaluzhni’s reputation as a military leader is one of Ukraine’s most important assets among its NATO partners. But more importantly, Ukrainian society and troops consider him a hero. Only Zaluzhny rivals Zelensky for the highest popularity in the polls. And above all, the army is with him. The head of the Armed Forces published on his social networks on Monday evening, when his dismissal had already been officially refused, a photo alongside Lieutenant General Serhii Shaptala, Chief of Staff. The image has been interpreted as a sign that the military establishment is united against the presidency.
Differences since the start of the war
The differences between Zelensky and Zaluzhni go back a long way, since the start of the invasion in February 2022. Three sources close to the general consulted by this newspaper during the almost two years of war explained that in the first weeks of the war, Zaluzhni argued with animosity with Zelensky and his right-hand man, Andrii Yermak, asserting that it was possible to resist the Russian attack. The presidency had doubts, and the proof was, according to these sources, from the first two weeks of fighting, when Zelensky still proposed negotiating a ceasefire with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A few weeks before the invasion began, Zaluzhni alerted political leaders of the impending Russian offensive, but Zelensky ruled out until the last moment that the threat was possible.
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Since then, significant differences have emerged. Zelensky relieved Zaluzhni’s trusted officers without informing him, as the head of the armed forces himself publicly lamented. The debate over the future law on the mobilization of new troops has also been a source of discord: the army is asking for half a million new soldiers, but Zelensky wants to reduce this number due to the unpopularity of the measure. Few men want to be drafted at a time when the war shows no signs of ending and Russia is once again making progress.
The most bitter clash between the two leaders occurred last November, when Zaluzhni published an essay and interview in The Economist in which he confirms gloomy prospects for the future of the conflict: the war front is frozen, as confirmed, Ukraine does not have enough resources to launch a new offensive in 2024. Zelensky publicly disavowed Zaluzhni, responding that Ukrainian troops could continue to conquer land. . The situation on the battlefield proved that Zaluzhni was right.
There is also another source of distrust between the two, the sabotage of the Nordstream undersea gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Nordstream is 51% owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and 49% by European companies. An explosion destroyed the infrastructure in September 2022. The German, Swedish and Danish courts concluded that there was sabotage and, as appeared in the German and American press, pointed the responsibility to a Ukrainian special forces unit. Washington Post Last November, it published part of the contents of the investigations, also with the collaboration of American intelligence services. According to this information, the saboteurs acted under the direct command of Zaluzhni and without Zelensky knowing anything about it. The attack on Nordstream, an EU energy infrastructure, represents the most serious conflict of interests between kyiv and its European allies.
The opposition takes sides
Iuliia Mendel, Zelensky’s former spokesperson, wrote on her social networks on Monday that the break with Zaluzhni is final: “Rumors about the replacement of the current commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army have been circulating for months, even a year. It might happen sooner or later. “There is political disaffection with military leaders. » Colonel Roman Kotsenko, MP of the opposition Holos party, said in Espresso that the government did not categorically deny the possibility of aid and supported Zaluzhni. “We have heard repeatedly that the president wants this change, the candidates to succeed him (Zaluzhni) have been leaked and a smear campaign has even been organized.”
The harshest remarks against Zaluzhni were made by independent MP Mariana Bezhula, close to Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. In a statement, Bezhula accused the commander-in-chief of having problems with alcoholism and of living far from the reality of the troops on the front: “The general is blackmailing by threatening that, if he is fired, he will not will not continue in the armed forces. “It will happen eventually.” “The sooner this happens, in my opinion, the better,” Bezhula noted, “because there will be more options to avoid the hell of destruction of our people, not only from the Russians, but of our obsolete Soviet army.”
Criticism of Zaluzhni was the exception, because especially his defenders were vocal. Ilia Ponomarenko, one of Ukraine’s most quoted defense analysts, harshly attacked Zelensky: “The dismissal of General Zaluzhni would not only be a shot in the foot, but also in the head. » “General Zaluzhni has the reputation of being an iron general and a savior of the nation, the embodiment of the Ukrainian armed forces that saved the country,” Ponomarenko wrote, explaining the logic of the internal conflict: “There has a discussion between politicians and generals on Who is responsible for the failure of the 2023 campaign and the current situation? The president’s office could think of someone who doesn’t shine as brightly alongside Zelensky, but they can’t afford it. Zaluzhni is now too big to be expelled.”
Zelensky’s opposition parties, which constitute a parliamentary minority, have activated political debate and criticism of the president’s management over the past two months. The controversy with Zaluzhni was the ideal opportunity to position himself close to the general and to fish in troubled waters. Petro Poroshenko, former president and founder of the main opposition force, European Solidarity, issued a harsh statement accusing Zelensky of being driven by “emotions and jealousy.” “Zaluzhni’s resignation would be a blow against national unity. Unity is only possible around the armed forces, and Valeri Zaluzhni is the personification of this. (…) In Brussels, they are shock because of these rumors, and in Moscow, we are drowned in laughter,” the former president underlined.
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