Dismissing top military official, Zelensky makes risky, politicized move

The military situation in Ukraine is critical. It is under the relentless assault of the Russian army and is losing ground. It lacks soldiers and ammunition to respond effectively. Yet this is the moment that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky chose to dismiss “Iron General” Valery Zaluzhny, the widely popular commander of the Ukrainian army, and replace him with Gen. Olexander Syrski, commander of land forces.

In the last six months, Zelensky also dismissed the ministers of defense and veteran affairs, chief of special forces, and others. The reasons for these decisions seem to be political, related both to Zaluzhny’s popularity and Zelensky’s desire to conduct war mainly for political effect.

Zaluzhny is regarded as a hero and savior of national independence by turning the Ukrainian army into a cohesive military force. He is an advocate of modernizing armed forces, and he removed Soviet-era generals from the command structure. In a Belsat TV interview, he said that his most important goal is to wean the Ukrainian army away from the Soviet model and Soviet standards. 

His strategy is to use flexible, innovative tactics and new technology in warfare. He is admired for treating his soldiers with respect and having a genuine sense of responsibility about risking their lives in contrast to the arbitrary Soviet style. This is one reason that he is so popular in the military as well as Ukrainian society and has a 92% approval rating. In a December poll, 72% of Ukrainians disapproved of the idea of his dismissal.

Syrski, the new commander, fits in well with the Zelensky circle in the presidential administration. He was born near Vladimir, Russia, and graduated from the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School. He was an officer in the Soviet Army. He not only reinforces the Soviet style of war in the Ukrainian army but also brings Soviet standards to the treatment of troops. His nickname is the “butcher,” as he throws waves of soldiers to certain death in so-called meat assaults and is fond of “extremely brutal discipline.”

Another area of conflict is the strategy of conducting the war. Zelensky seems to be most concerned with the appearance of relentless attack that looks good in news reports, and he blames Zaluzhny for the lack of success of the 2023 offensive. But Zaluzhny was a proponent of a concentrated attack south toward Crimea, as recommended by many Western military observers, that might have been more successful. In 2023, Zelensky established a separate channel of communications with some lower military commanders, omitting Zaluzhny, thus dividing the Ukrainian army into his followers and those of its commander.

It was Zelensky who insisted that the front be spread virtually all across the 1,000-kilometer Russian-Ukrainian border. Syrski, a blind follower of Zelensky’s strategy, was a commander in Bakhmut in the Donbas region, a relatively unimportant outpost, which was extremely costly in the lives of the best, Western-trained and equipped Ukrainian soldiers. This battle was eventually lost, and the Russian army took Bakhmut in May 2023. 

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In view of these heavy human losses, Zaluzhny wanted to announce a general mobilization of another 500,000 troops to the Ukrainian army, but Zelensky opposed the idea, fearing for his political ratings. The primary concern for political optics, however, affects military results.

Thus, Zelensky made the decision to dismiss Zaluzhny against the consensus in the Ukrainian military and society that the general has the right skills and concept of strategy to get the best results for Ukraine. Zelensky’s choice might have worsened the situation and damaged his political credibility.

Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon is a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. She is a strategist, expert, and author on Eastern Europe, Russia, and U.S.-East European relations.

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