Zelensky fires army chief in major shake-up of Ukraine’s military

Zelensky fires army chief in major shake-up of Ukraine’s military

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has sacked his armed forces chief as part of a major shake-up of the country’s military leadership nearly two years after the start of the war with Russia.

The move, which comes after weeks of speculation that Mr Zelensky and General Valery Zaluzhny were clashing over frontline strategy, marks the most serious change in Ukraine’s top military brass since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

General Zaluzhny has been replaced by Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces. He has been credited with a role, under General Zaluzhny, in the surprise and successful counterattack by Kyiv’s troops in Kharkiv in the summer and autumn of 2022 and has since been serving as the head of military operations in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has faced an increase in attacks by Putin’s forces both on the ground and in the air in recent weeks, with a long-expected counteroffensive by Kyiv that started last summer having failed to gain back the level of territory from Russian forces that Ukraine would have hoped.

Much of the 600-mile frontline has moved little in recent months, but Russia is looking to make gains of its own in areas of eastern and northern Ukraine. This situation has been exacerbated by a failure by the US Congress to agree to fresh military aid for Ukraine after the previous support ran out in December.

Zelensky with Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi at a position near the Ukraine-Russia frontline (Reuters)
Zelensky with Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi at a position near the Ukraine-Russia frontline (Reuters)

Soldiers on the frontline have spoken to The Independent about shortages of ammunition and weapons to fight Putin’s weapons.

The US is Kyiv’s single largest provider of military aid, but some Republicans – particularly supporters of Donald Trump – have blocked tens of billions of dollars in fresh funding over a row about immigration on the US southern border. Leaders of both the Democrats and the Republicans are now scrambling to save the funding in a separate bill.

In a post on social media, Mr Zelensky thanked General Zaluzhny for his two years of service as commander-in-chief.

“Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the armed forces of Ukraine,” he said.

President Zelensky added that he and General Zaluzhny had a “frank conversation” about the changes needed in the army.

“I proposed to General Zaluzhny to remain part of the team,” he added.

Speculation over General Zaluzhny’s dismissal reached its height in the last 10 days, since a meeting last week when Mr Zelensky is said to have asked the army chief to resign, which General Zaluzhny declined to do.

Mr Zelensky’s desire to replace his top army commander was clear, but there were suggestions he may be having trouble getting someone to take over from the general, who is extremely popular with both rank-and-file soldiers and the public and had earned the moniker “Iron General”.

General Zaluzhny, in a Telegram message, did not announce he had stepped down but said he accepted that “everyone must change and adapt to new realities” and agreed that there is a “need to change approaches and strategy” in the war.

A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka (AP)

The country’s defence minister, Rustem Umerov, said in a statement: “[General Zaluzhny] had one of the most difficult tasks – to lead the armed forces of Ukraine during the great war with Russia.

“But war does not remain the same. War changes and demands change. Battles 2022, 2023 and 2024 are three different realities. 2024 will bring new changes, for which we must be ready. New approaches, new strategies are needed.

“Today, a decision was made on the need to change the leadership of the armed forces of Ukraine ... I am sincerely grateful to [General Zaluzhny] for all his achievements and victories.”

Earlier this week, Mr Zelensky suggested that the changes could extend beyond General Zaluzhny.

“I mean a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military,” he said. “If we want to win we must all push in the same direction, convinced of victory, we cannot be discouraged, let our arms fall, we must have the right positive energy,” he added.

General Zaluzhny was appointed by Mr Zelensky in July 2021 and has overseen Ukraine’s military operations since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. He is seen as a hero by many in Ukraine for his forces’ use of stealth and speed to thwart Russia's advance on Kyiv in the early weeks of Moscow’s invasion, helping to ensure that, even now, President Putin remains a long way from conquering Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier fires towards Russian positions near Avdiivka (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires towards Russian positions near Avdiivka (AP)

As the war progressed, general Zaluzhny’s stock rose, and he won praise at home and abroad in the counteroffensives in the northeast and south that recaptured swathes of land. A portrait of him smiling and flashing the peace sign was spray-painted on walls after the liberation of the southern city of Kherson, under the slogan ”God and Zaluzhnyi are with us”.

A December 2023 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found 72 per cent of Ukrainians would view the dismissal of General Zaluzhny negatively, with only 2 per cent seeing it positively. Mr Zelensky’s popularity, meanwhile, had dropped from 84 per cent in December 2022 to 62 per cent a year later.

Kyiv mayor, Vitali Klitschko, who has had his own disagreements with President Zelensky, had previously criticised the possibility of General Zaluzhny’s firing, saying it was due to the general’s leadership that “many Ukrainians truly trust the armed forces”.

In the wake of dismissing his army chief, Mr Zelensky said that the Ukrainian army required immediate changes with a new approach to mobilisation and recruiting.

On the frontline, Ukrainian forces claimed to have shot down a Russian attack helicopter in eastern Ukraine near the key town of Avdiivka, where soldiers are fighting from street to street as Russia’s army steps up its four-month campaign to surround defending troops.

Avdiivka has become “a primary focus” of Moscow’s forces, the UK Defense Ministry said in an assessment on Thursday.

The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces reported Thursday that its troops had fended off 40 enemy assaults around Avdiivka over the previous 24 hours. That is roughly double the number of daily Russian assaults at other points along the frontline. Both Kyiv and Moscow see Avdiivka as key to Russia’s stated aim of securing full control of the two eastern “Donbas” provinces – Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moscow controls the city of Donetsk, not far from Avdiivka and sees the town as a staging post for possible future advances. The fight has evolved into a gruesome effort for both sides. It has been compared to the nine months of fighting for Bakhmut, the Ukraine war's longest and bloodiest battle. It ended with Russia capturing the bombed-out, deserted city last May in what Moscow hailed as a major triumph.

Colonel General Syrskyi faced some criticism of some soldiers on the frontline for keeping Kyiv’s forces under fire too long in Bakhmut.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report