Rifts within Ukraine’s top leadership have burst into the open following swirling rumors that the country's top military chief will be dismissed amid reported tensions with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The rumors that Valerii Zaluzhnyi would be sacked were denied by Zelenskyy’s office and the Defense Ministry this week and the immensely popular top commander still retains his post. But the reports have fueled expectations of his imminent resignation, which could be a boon for Russia as the war approaches its second anniversary.
His departure would be the most severe shakeup of Ukraine's top military brass since the Russian invasion as the country grapples with dire ammunition and personnel shortages following a failed summer counteroffensive. It also could hurt the morale of Ukrainian troops, who have been fighting grinding battles for nearly two years.
A Ukrainian official in Europe speaking to The Associated Press said Zelenskyy told Zaluzhnyi during a meeting on Monday that he must resign if they cannot come to a common solution on key issues.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the meeting was emotional, and suggested that mobilization was one area of disagreement. The official said that tensions between the two men are rising and that the general would not leave his post voluntarily.
Reports about Zaluzhnyi’s possible dismissal appeared in Ukrainian media Monday. Ukraine’s Mirror of the Week said, citing unidentified sources close to Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi, that the president had asked the general to step down. Zaluzhnyi was offered a post as an adviser, but he rejected that, according to the reports.
Requests for comment by the president’s office and Zaluzhnyi’s office were not answered.
Much needed military aid to fuel the next phase of the fight is blocked in the U.S. Congress, and Ukrainian forces are digging in to defend positions against advancing Russian troops.
“Zelensky has the right to remove Zaluzhnyi. But he needs to have a very good justification for that, a very good explanation which is understandable to Ukrainians," said Oleksii Haran, research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv.
"We know that if Zaluzhnyi is dismissed right now, it will be used by Russian propaganda, it will be used by forces, including those inside the United States, which are delaying supplies of arms to Ukraine. So this won’t be a good thing," Haran said.
Zaluzhnyi enjoys widespread popularity across the country and the military, but he has had been at odds with Zelenskyy since saying in an interview with The Economist last year that the fighting with Russia had stalemated. The president denied that was the case.
Russian state media delighted Wednesday at Western reports on the rumors, covering the story several times during the flagship discussion program “60 Minutes” on the Russia 1 television channel as well as during news bulletins on the news channel Russia 24.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the Kremlin is “of course” following the news about Zaluzhnyi.
“There are still many questions,” Peskov said, according to Tass, adding: “One thing remains obvious: The Kyiv regime has many problems, everything is wrong there. This is clear.”
“It’s obvious that the failed counter-offensive and the problems at the front have led to growing conflict ... both in the military and civilian elite” in Kyiv, Peskov said. He predicted that “these conflicts will grow” as Russia’s military operation “continues successfully.”