What new leader for Ukraine's military means for the war, the West and President Zelenskyy's future | Sean Bell

By Isaac M February 10, 2024

After months of speculation about a rift with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi has been removed from his post, with the president saying it was “time for renewal”.

Gen Zaluzhnyi is seen as a national hero by many Ukrainians – so why has he been replaced, and will this change Ukraine’s fortunes in the war with Russia?

It is not unusual for military leadership to be rotated during an extended period of combat operations. Gen Zaluzhnyi is considered to have been instrumental in resisting the Russian invasion and is an immensely popular figure in Ukraine.

But, military leadership requires a broad spectrum of personal attributes, and popularity is not high on the list.

Wartime requires difficult decisions to be made, often at great sacrifice by those under command, placing a very heavy burden on senior commanders. Even the most hardened commanders eventually start to feel the strain.

Ukraine is the David to Russia’s superpower goliath, so Gen Zaluzhnyi was quick to embrace Western military tactics and support to avoid conventional Soviet-era attritional warfare.

The West provided high-tech precision weapons, modern battle tanks and missiles, plus combat training for Ukraine’s forces; however, the much anticipated 2023 “spring” counteroffensive failed to achieve its objectives.

Pic: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former commander in chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former commander in chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. Pic: Reuters

With the benefit of hindsight, without a credible combat air capability – modern fighter jets – Ukraine was always going to struggle.

The Ukrainians fought bravely, but a war of attrition beckoned, and Gen Zaluzhnyi knew that limited resources had to be preserved.

With a static frontline and waning Western support, political pressure grew to make progress. This created tensions between the military and political leadership, with Gen Zaluzhnyi wary of mounting continued offensive action without Western military support.

Ukraine needed more weapons to prevail which would take time – time that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy judged Ukraine did not have.

The final straw appears to have been reached in November last year when – in a long essay and interview in The Economist magazine – Gen Zaluzhnyi said the war had reached a stalemate.

Whatever the battlefield realities, President Zelenskyy needed to breed confidence in Western allies that victory remained possible, if military equipment and ammunition were forthcoming.

Recognising that Ukraine was in a stalemate, with Russia still occupying 20% of Ukraine’s territory, was unhelpful.

So, President Zelenskyy decided on a change of approach and strategy.

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Kyiv hit by missile and drone strikes

However, in the circumstances, the decision to replace the popular head of the Ukrainian military will have carried risk.

Military coups occur when the military loses faith with their political masters, and it is evident that President Zelenskyy and Gen Zaluzhnyi have very different views about the next stage of the war.

But, after weeks of rumours, eventually a smooth transition has been agreed.

Read more:
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The new head of Ukraine’s armed forces is 58-year-old Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, an older and even more battle-hardened officer.

But, since Gen Syrskyi will inherit the same military shortcomings that challenged his predecessor, it is hard to see how this change will have a significant impact on the battlefield.

Gen Syrskyi also has less experience with Western military doctrine that underpins most Western hi-tech munitions.

As for Zaluzhnyi, analysts have long speculated about whether he could one day emerge as a political rival to President Zelenskyy in future elections.

General Eisenhower – the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe in the Second World War – had no apparent political ambitions at the end of the war, yet became the 34th president of the US just a few years later.

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Can Ukraine win the war against Russia? 

However, at this stage, it looks unlikely that Gen Zaluzhnyi would seek political office until the war with Russia is over.

Gen Zaluzhnyi has proven a popular and capable wartime leader and will be a very hard act to follow.

But, sometimes a change brings fresh perspectives and opportunities, and President Zelenskyy will be hoping that this change heralds a change of fortunes for Ukraine’s war with Russia.

However, time is not on President Zelenskyy’s side, and he will probably need rather more than a change in military leadership to turn the tide of the war in Ukraine’s favour.


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