Zaluzhnyi spoke out in an essay published by CNN on Thursday that it said was written before “the expected announcement of his dismissal.” In it he talks about his aims for 2024 and lists what he sees as the problems facing Ukraine, including a reduction in military support from key allies and Russia’s ability to evade sanctions to build more weapons.
He also points to Moscow’s “significant advantage” in being able to recruit as many people as it wants, as opposed to what the general calls the “inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures” — a thinly veiled stab at Zelenskyy’s government.
It remains to be seen how such a dramatic shake-up of Kyiv’s military command, if one is coming, would be seen by its Western allies at such a delicate moment in the relationship.
On Thursday, Ukraine received a major boost from its European partners in the form of a $54 billion financial aid package to keep the country’s war-ravaged economy afloat.
But new U.S. aid remains held up in Congress with Zelenskyy fighting to keep the world’s focus from shifting entirely to the crisis in the Middle East as Russian forces push forward in a new offensive in Ukraine’s northeast.
Throughout the war, Ukraine has worked hard to display determination and cohesion, with Zelenskyy publicly cracking down on corruption and firing close allies suspected of any wrongdoing, but Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal would be like “hitting the bull’s eye” of national unity, former president Petro Poroshenko told NBC News.
“Unity has been and will continue to be possible only around the Armed Forces,” Poroshenko said in a written comment sent by his spokesperson on Whatsapp. “And Valerii Zaluzhnyi has become their personification.”
“In Moscow, they will be choking with joy. It will not make Ukraine stronger, and its consequences will be extremely negative,” added Poroshenko, a bitter rival of Zelenskyy who lost to him in the 2019 election and may still harbor political ambitions.
The Kremlin has certainly been keeping a close eye, with spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying Wednesday the saga shows Kyiv has “a lot of problems” and “things are not going well there.”
“The rumors are certainly damaging,” said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London. “Any indication that there is dissension at the highest levels of decision-making risks signaling that the Ukrainian government is uncertain about the progress and direction of the war. This is clearly unhelpful at a time when the government needs to project confidence.”
And it helps to sustain Russian hopes that they can wear down Ukraine’s political will to continue fighting, Tuck said.
Rumors about Zaluzhnyi’s looming dismissal have already led to talk of possible replacements in the Ukrainian press. The names of ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi and spy chief Kyrylo Budanov have topped most lists, but it’s not clear if either man would welcome the responsibility of stepping in for a general widely respected by the public.
Zaluzhnyi, 50, is a career soldier, and took charge of Ukraine’s armed forces in 2021, seven months before the full-scale invasion by Moscow. Ukrainians credit him for holding Russians back around the capital, Kyiv, in the early months of the war, and for Ukraine’s two major counteroffensive campaigns in 2022, which saw large swathes of territory liberated in the east and south.
And while his leadership during last summer’s counteroffensive did not yield significant breakthroughs, his approval remains high.