Zaluzhnyi Leaves as Ukraine’s Army Chief amid Deepening Rift

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Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi
Then Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on Dec. 26, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s top general departed as the nation’s army chief, a person familiar said, ending weeks of speculation over a deepening rift in the country’s leadership and stoking uncertainty over the direction of the war.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Valeriy Zaluzhnyi stepped down or was dismissed, but the move was prompted by mounting acrimony between the president and his top general, the person said on condition of anonymity. Zelenskyy said in a social media post that he’s pushing for “renewed leadership” after meeting with Zaluzhnyi.

“The time for such a renewal is now,” Zelenskyy said on X, saying that Zaluzhnyi would remain “part of the team.” Oleksandr Syrsky, who commands the country’s land forces, will replace him, the president announced on his Telegram channel.

The departure of the commander-in-chief, a figure widely revered among soldiers as well as the Ukrainian people, comes at a fraught moment for the war-battered nation, which is increasingly out-gunned by Russia’s war machine and running short of Western aid.

As more than $60 billion in U.S. funding for Ukraine is snarled in the U.S. Congress, President Joe Biden’s administration has pressed Zelenskyy to sharpen the military plan to force back Russia’s invasion. That was partly out of concern among officials in Washington over the split between the Ukrainian leader and his top military official.

    The friction between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi spilled into the open in November, when the army chief told The Economist in a blunt interview that the war had settled into a stalemate — a characterization that irked his boss.

    At least part of the split — the tensions date to the first months of the war — is Zelenskyy’s preference for a bolder military plan colliding with a more cautious Zaluzhnyi, according to people familiar with the military leadership.

    The president’s plan for a reshuffle hasn’t gone smoothly. The general refused to step down from his post at a meeting with Zelenskyy last week, according to people familiar with the discussion. The public reaction of Zaluzhnyi’s backers to the move added to the intrigue in Kyiv.

    Zaluzhnyi, a 50-year-old officer who is the first army chief to graduate from a military academy in independent Ukraine rather than the Soviet Union, has been credited with scrapping conventional Soviet military tactics as he’s sought to modernize the Ukrainian fighting forces.

    He’s widely credited with masterminding a strategy that surprised most observers by forcing out the Russian forces from a swathe of territory seized by the Kremlin in the first year of the full-scale invasion.

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    (With assistance from Kateryna Chursina, Olesia Safronova and Aliaksandr Kudrytski.)

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