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Business News/ News / World/  The Most Popular Man in Ukraine Has Become a Problem for Zelenskiy
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The Most Popular Man in Ukraine Has Become a Problem for Zelenskiy

The president has tried — and so far failed — to push out his commander-in-chief in a dispute over strategy and political insecurities 

The Most Popular Man in Ukraine Has Become a Problem for ZelenskiyPremium
The Most Popular Man in Ukraine Has Become a Problem for Zelenskiy

(Bloomberg) -- General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi is a national hero for Ukrainians after repelling the first wave of Vladimir Putin’s invasion on the outskirts of Kyiv.

But two years into the war, setbacks on the battlefield and political jealousies in the capital have soured his relationship with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This week, the president tried — and failed — to force out his commander-in-chief, pulling back the curtain on a damaging rift at the heart of the Ukraine war effort. 

Their dispute helps explain the indecision over military strategy that is worrying officials in Washington and adds an unwanted element of uncertainty at a point when US military aid hangs in the balance, troops are running dangerously short on ammunition and Russia is on the offensive again. 

Zelenskiy could just fire his general, and that may well be the end game. One senior European diplomat who speaks regularly to Zelenskiy’s team said they thought it most likely Zaluzhnyi would be dismissed and worried about the signal it would send to Ukraine’s allies. The commander met with his boss for a regular military planning discussion on Friday evening. 

Their dispute comes at a delicate moment for the president and ousting Zaluzhnyi would be certain to hurt morale among both troops and civilians. 

“If it weren't for Zaluzhnyi, we would all be speaking Russian already," said Yevhen, a 38-year-old soldier serving on the front lines in southern Ukraine, who asked not to have his full name cited due to security concerns. “If Zaluzhnyi is fired, there could be a riot."

The 50-year-old general’s appeal is partly down to the deep respect for the military in a country under attack. But Ukrainians also like the way he’s stayed focused on his job rather than building a public profile. And they love his disdain for the country’s old Soviet ways. 

When Zaluzhnyi was appointed in July 2021, he became the first modern army chief to have been trained in independent Ukraine rather than Soviet academies and he has championed a new generation of officers.

“This new breed will completely change the army in five years — almost everyone knows a foreign language well, works well with sophisticated kit and is well read," he said in a 2020 interview with ArmyInform, a military news website. “We want to move away from maps and from writing battle plans like it was 1943."  

In combat, that means that junior officers have more authority to make decisions, according to Oleh Gorbachev, who is also serving near the front lines. “His character wasn’t shaped by the Soviet system and this is good," Gorbachev said in a message exchange on Facebook. The older officers just “slow things down," he added.

Read More About Ukraine’s War Effort:

Zaluzhnyi strikes an informal tone with his troops, chatting to them as equals regardless of their rank. His Facebook page shows pictures of him with his wife and with his soldiers. Of his two daughters, the elder one is also serving in the military. 

“He has no pretentions, this grandeur people expect from a general," his former spokeswoman Liudmyla Dolhonovska said in an interview. “There is no formality."

He came to prominence during the first phase of the conflict in 2014, leading combat units in fighting around Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed and injured. “There was a feeling of constant threat," he said in the ArmyInform interview, “in the soul and in the heart." 

In the months leading up to the war, Zaluzhnyi ran war games in Ukraine to prepare his troops for the coming invasion, according to Simon Shuster, who interviewed the general for his recent biography of Zelenskiy, `The Showman.’ According to Shuster, Zaluzhnyi had sought to conceal his work from Putin, but also from Zelenskiy, who had wanted to play down the risk of an invasion due to concerns that alarmism would hurt the economy. 

During the first months of the war, the general lived and worked with his inner circle out of a bunker beneath the Defense Ministry in Kyiv, Shuster said. Once the Russians had been pushed back from the capital, he moved to a hotel nearby that had been commandeered by the army, and was reunited with his spouse.  

That was a heady time for the Ukrainian military, as they took advantage of ill-prepared Russian forces to reclaim large swathes of territory in the north and south of the country. But the hopes that stoked for a second counteroffensive in 2023 were frustrated as Zaluzhnyi’s troops ran into deep Russian defenses backed up by drones that limited the impact of their western-supplied battle tanks. 

Those kinds of setbacks invariably stoke tensions between politicians and generals — on the other side of the frontlines, Russian losses had encouraged last summer’s mutiny by Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin’s revolt ostensibly targeted Russian Defense Ministry leaders for perceived military failings, but it quickly spiraled into the most serious threat to Putin’s nearly quarter-century grip on power in Moscow.

Ukraine’s frustrated attempts to breach the Russian lines in the fall created tensions with the western allies who’d supplied Zaluzhnyi’s troops with billions of dollars of military hardware. The US wanted the Ukrainians to focus their firepower in one area to maximize the chances of a breakthrough even though it would mean more casualties. Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskiy instead divided their forces between the eastern front and the south. 

The failed counteroffensive also created tensions between the two Ukrainian leaders and they broke into the open in November, when the Economist published a rare interview in which the general said that the fighting had reached a stalemate. That earned him a rebuke from the president who insisted that Ukraine could still achieve a breakthrough. 

That definitely irked Zelenskiy, who is very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of the progress of the war and may even see it as a threat to his leadership, said European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity. The president has seemed to be under particular strain in recent months, the diplomats said.

The shifting public opinion in Ukraine might also have made things worse. While Zelenskiy has seen his popularity start to wane as the war has dragged on, support for his general remains sky-high — 88% of Ukrainians trust Zaluzhnyi, according to a December survey from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, while 62% had confidence in Zelenskiy. 

The latest point of contention has been Zaluzhnyi’s increasingly vocal calls for a new wave of conscription to boost the ranks of the military, in which the average age has edged up into the 40s and some troops have been fighting without a break for almost two years. On Thursday, the general published an article on CNN’s website in which he criticized the government for holding back the defense industry with bureaucracy and delays over recruiting new soldiers.

That only sharpens the dilemma for Zelenskiy as he contemplates his next move. And it adds to the anxiety for millions of Ukrainians waiting to see how the dispute will be settled.

“Zaluzhnyi represents hope for victory, honesty, professionalism and integrity," said Olha Zhuravska, a 44-year-old engineer from Kharkiv who fled the war and now lives in Prague. “To remove Zaluzhnyi means to deprive people of the hope."

--With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Alex Wickham, Aliaksandr Kudrytski, Daryna Krasnolutska, Volodymyr Verbianyi and Natalia Drozdiak.

(Updates with confirmation of meeting in fourth paragraph)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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Published: 03 Feb 2024, 12:24 AM IST
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