What next for the war as Zelenskyy replaces army chief

What next for the war as Zelenskyy replaces army chief

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends the flag-raising ceremony in Isium after Ukrainian forces took control of the city from Russian forces on September 14, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Commander of the Ukrainian Land Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi, Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, Governor of the Military Administration of the Kharkiv Region Oleg Sinegubov also took part in the ceremony.

Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is believed to have made one of his “biggest gambles” yet by replacing his commander-in-chief in a dramatic military shakeup.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, one of Ukraine’s most experienced commanders who had led the country’s ground forces since 2019, was named the new head of Ukraine’s Armed Forces on Thursday as part of broader changes in military leadership.

Zelenskyy fired General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, a widely respected and popular figure in Ukraine, after months of speculation about his future and reported tensions between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi over strategy.

It represents the most significant change in Ukraine’s military leadership since Russia began its full-scale invasion of the country nearly two years ago.

In a post on the social media platform

“I appreciate every victory we achieved together, thanks to all Ukrainian warriors who heroically carry this war on their shoulders. We spoke openly about issues in the Army that require change. Urgent changes,” said Zelensky.

General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, seen in his office at the General Staff building of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, June 28, 2023.

Oksana Parafeniuk | The Washington Post | Getty Images

“This is not about last names and certainly not about politics,” said Zelensky. “This is about our army system, about the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and about incorporating the experience of the battle-hardened commanders of this war.”

Zelenskky concluded the announcement by saying: “The year 2024 can be successful for Ukraine only if there are effective changes in the base of our defense, the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Out with the “Iron General”

Zaluzhnyi, dubbed the “Iron General,” is credited with playing a crucial role in Ukraine’s surprising defensive posture against Russia in the early months of the war and is seen as a symbol of Ukraine’s fighting spirit.

However, an alleged dispute between Zelenskky and Zaluzhnyi came to public attention late last year when the latter said in an editorial in The Economist that the war had stalled. Zelenskky later rebuked Zaluzhnyi for this assessment and denied that the war was at a stalemate.

“While Zelensky’s decision to fire Zaluzhnyi is no surprise, it is one of the Ukrainian leader’s biggest gambles of the entire war,” Peter Dickinson, editor of the Atlantic Council think tank’s UkraineAlert service, said in a blog post.

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank after its maintenance not far from Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on February 5, 2024, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Genya Savilov | Afp | Getty Images

Dickinson said there was an obvious need to change tactics as Ukraine’s armed forces had not been able to achieve major breakthroughs on the battlefield for some time. However, he warned that the timing of Zaluzhnyi’s removal was “particularly unfortunate.”

“Ukraine is currently facing a growing ammunition shortage due to alarming delays in Western military aid. This already severely limits all offensive operations and leaves Ukrainian commanders little choice but to switch to active defense,” Dickinson said.

“If the military situation deteriorates further in the coming months, Zelensky will now find that he will be held personally responsible,” he added.

Who is Syrskyi?

Syrskyi, the new head of Ukraine’s armed forces, has been responsible for many of the country’s most notable successes over the past two years. These include the defense of the capital Kiev in the first month of the full-scale Russian invasion and the counteroffensive in Kharkiv in September 2022.

However, Syrskyi has also been criticized for his role in the battle to defend the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, with both Russia and Ukraine reporting heavy casualties in the fighting.

Andrius Tursa, a consultant for Central and Eastern Europe at consultancy Teneo, said Zelensky’s move to replace his top military commander “will likely prove to be an unpopular decision.”

“Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal is widely seen as an attempt by Zelensky to eliminate a potential political rival. This suggests that in this difficult phase of the war, his own political goals take precedence over the country’s general interests,” Tursa said in a research note on Friday.

“From the perspective of Kiev’s international allies, the questionable replacement of the military leader, along with Zelensky’s hints of a broader political reshuffle, sends a signal of division and competition at the highest levels.”

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Tursa said this optic would not help Ukraine at a time when its allies are “already struggling to find consensus on further aid.”

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said Thursday that changes in military leadership are normal for countries engaged in protracted war.

The think tank said Zelensky, Zaluzhnyi and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov had previously all acknowledged that the war had changed dramatically between 2022 and 2024 and that new approaches and strategies were needed.

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2024-02-09 17:06:32