Ukraine’s popular army chief Valery Zaluzhny was called to a meeting at the president’s office on Monday and told he was being fired, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN, following weeks of growing speculation over tensions between Volodymyr Zelensky and his top commander.
A formal announcement has not been made, meaning Zaluzhny was still in post as of Wednesday evening, however, a presidential decree is expected by the end of the week, one of the sources told CNN, in what would be the biggest military shakeup by Zelensky since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion almost two years ago.
Rumors of the meeting, and Zaluzhny’s dismissal, exploded around Kyiv on Monday evening, lent credibility by a rift widely understood to have opened up between the president and his commander-in-chief following the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year.
Tensions are said to have risen in particular when Zaluzhny described the war with Russia as a stalemate, in an interview and essay with The Economist magazine in November.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Serhiy Nykyforov told CNN and others that rumors of the army chief’s dismissal were untrue. The defense ministry also put out a message on its social media channels which read, “Dear journalists, an immediate answer to everyone: No, this is not true.”
And in his daily evening address Monday, Zelensky himself made no reference at all to his army chief.
But according to one of the sources, at a small gathering at his office on Monday – also attended by Defense Minister Rustem Umerov – the president declared he had “made a decision to dismiss the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.” The account is in line with other reports, including in The Washington Post and the Financial Times.
In a conversation described as “calm,” Zelensky then proceeded to offer Zaluzhny a different position, which Zaluzhny declined.
Ukraine’s president then underlined his decision, saying the fact Zaluzhny had turned down the new role did not change the fact he was being removed from his current post.
CNN reached out to the president’s office on Wednesday requesting further comment but did not receive a reply.
Two names in particular are being discussed as possible successors, one of the sources, a senior military commander, told CNN.
One of them is the current head of the Defense Intelligence Directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, a 38-year-old general known to have strong ties with Zelensky and seen as representing a new generation of military leaders.
Asked by CNN in an interview on Tuesday whether he was set to become Ukraine’s new commander-in-chief, Budanov knocked it down, suggesting it was unlikely he would be speaking to CNN at that moment if such an appointment had just been made.
“We are in a war, and all sides are using all available means, including information warfare,” the military spy chief added.
The other frontrunner is Oleksandr Syrskyi, currently the Commander of Ukrainian Land Forces, the senior military commander speaking to CNN said.
Syrskyi’s office has not responded to CNN’s attempt to reach him.
One of Ukraine’s most popular leaders
Despite the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to make any significant progress in rolling back Russian forces in the south and the east of the country, Zaluzhny remains one of the most popular leaders in the country.
A poll published by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology in December found 88% of Ukrainians supported the top general. Zelensky’s approval rating, though also high, was considerably lower at 62%.
The poll was conducted after differences between the two leaders had apparently broken into the open over the prosecution of the war.
“Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Zaluzhny had written in The Economist in November as it became clear that Russia’s deeply-laid minefields, and overwhelming heavy artillery fire, had largely prevented significant Ukrainian success in the counteroffensive.
“There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” but instead an equilibrium of devastating losses and destruction, the army chief added.
Those comments drew immediate criticism from the president’s office.
“If I were in the military, the last thing I would do is to comment to the press, to the public, on what is happening at the front [and] what might happen at the front … because then we will facilitate the aggressor’s work,” Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the president’s office, said on Ukrainian television at the time.
Zelensky did not openly criticize Zaluzhny, but told a live news conference in December: “I am waiting for very concrete things on the battlefield. The strategy is clear: We have an understanding of our actions. I want to see details,” Reuters reported.
Launched in June, Ukraine’s counteroffensive was its main effort to drive Russian forces back from the territories they have occupied since 2022, particularly in the south of the country. Ukraine had aimed to push south from the town of Orikhiv towards the Sea of Azov, splitting Russia’s forces in two and cutting its land bridge to Crimea.
But Ukraine’s gains were modest. Its forces attempted to push from Orikhiv towards Tokmak, but only made it as far as Robotyne, a little over 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south.
Ukraine’s lack of progress led to a call from its armed forces at the end of December for a huge mobilization effort of up to half a million new conscripts. The request is currently before parliament.
One soldier contacted by CNN currently fighting around Avdiivka in the east said any decision to dismiss Zaluzhny was a mistake.
“He is a worthy general. Our government wants to overthrow him because he is not very convenient for them,” the soldier said, adding, “It seems like ‘Zelensky’s guys’ sold us out a long time ago.”
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