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Business News/ Politics / Zelensky’s military shake-up ties him to battlefield performance
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Zelensky’s military shake-up ties him to battlefield performance

wsj

The decision to replace Ukraine’s popular top general comes as the army is struggling to hold back Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) with newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Oleksandr Syrsky (C-R) and Minister of Defence of Ukraine Rustem Umerov (C-L) with other miliraty members during their counsel in Kyiv. (Photo by Handout / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP)Premium
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) with newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Oleksandr Syrsky (C-R) and Minister of Defence of Ukraine Rustem Umerov (C-L) with other miliraty members during their counsel in Kyiv. (Photo by Handout / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP)

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to replace his top general last week was arguably his most consequential choice since opting to stay in Kyiv rather than flee in the early days of Russia’s invasion.

After weeks of speculation, Zelensky dismissed Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy as commander in chief of the armed forces in the most significant shake-up of the country’s leadership in nearly two years of war.

The move is aimed at rebooting the country’s war effort, Zelensky said, as Ukrainian forces struggle to hold the line against Russia. But replacing a figure as popular as Zaluzhniy with Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskiy, who is seen as closer to the president, will bind Zelensky more tightly to battlefield decisions, making him more accountable for any failure, analysts said.

“Zelensky took responsibility for everything now—both the political and military side," said independent Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Davydiuk.

Zelensky named a former deputy defense minister to succeed Syrskiy as commander of Ukraine’s ground forces on Sunday after making five senior military appointments to fill out his new team.

It is a fraught moment for the actor-turned-politician who rallied the nation to resist Russia’s onslaught nearly two years ago, winning plaudits and billions of dollars in aid from the West. After successfully fending off Russia’s initial attempt to take Kyiv and then reversing some of Moscow’s gains, Zelensky and Ukraine’s other wartime leaders had a tougher time in 2023.

The failure to break through Russian defenses in a costly counteroffensive last summer piled pressure on Zelensky as deliveries of military equipment from Western allies began to falter. Along the front lines, Ukrainian forces are now facing acute shortages of ammunition as Congress stalls on a $60 billion aid package, and Russia is taking advantage to inch forward in a handful of places.

On the streets of Ukraine’s capital, some received the move to oust Zaluzhniy with dismay. Olha Venediktova, 36, described it as “the worst decision" to be taken by Ukraine’s leadership.

A small group of people gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square on Friday in protest of Zelensky’s decision, chanting for his ouster.

While some soldiers were disappointed, they said the change in leadership wouldn’t change the situation they face on the battlefield. A 31-year-old sergeant said he had felt shock and anger at the removal of Zaluzhniy, whom he cited as a reason behind his decision to join the armed forces.

Zaluzhniy’s dismissal came after months of speculation over tensions between Zelensky and Zaluzhniy, who enjoys huge popularity among the military and the wider public.

Friction grew as political imperatives increasingly clashed with the realities of the war. While Zelensky sought to remain upbeat, Zaluzhniy painted a more somber picture of Ukraine’s prospects. In an essay for the Economist following Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive last year, Zaluzhniy described the war as a stalemate and said a major upgrade to the country’s military capabilities would be needed to make further gains against Russia.

Zelensky publicly rebuked him for that assessment and questioned his call to mobilize hundreds of thousands more troops—a move that would be politically unpopular. Zaluzhniy hit back in a commentary for CNN, saying it was the government’s responsibility to mobilize people.

But Zelensky’s tone shifted notably on Thursday as he announced the dismissal in a video address, saying urgent changes were needed to overhaul the military.

Many of the problems he cited, including the lack of Western aid and manpower, can’t be solved by the commander in chief. But the appointment of Syrskiy may help result in a more effective working relationship.

“In a country at war, the president needs to be lashed up to the top military commander," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “From what we gathered there wasn’t a lot of face time between Zelensky and Zaluzhniy and that’s not good in wartime."

While Zaluzhniy has never publicly voiced political ambitions, analysts say Zelensky was likely threatened by the general’s popularity. A poll conducted in December found that trust in the president had fallen to 62%, while Zaluzhniy retained the confidence of 88% of Ukrainians.

“For two years, two men with complex characters next to each other is already difficult, especially since Zelensky is an artist," said Ukrainian opposition lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko. “[Zelensky] wants to be a major star—like any actor—and here is another star shining."

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said change was necessary to prevent a stalemate on the front that would negatively affect the public mood. The decision to remove Zaluzhniy was driven by the need to review tactics that failed to achieve any breakthrough last year, he said.

On the front line, some soldiers were more sanguine. “What exactly will change for me from now having a different commander in chief? Absolutely nothing," said Maksym Skubenko from the 5th Separate Assault Brigade. “I see where the enemy is. I know what to do with him."

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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