There are no grounds for the doom-filled prophecies that without Zaluzhny, Ukraine faces disaster. But the circumstances of the general’s departure do leave the impression of a president who is overreaching his hand by more or less openly putting narrow and selfish interests before considerations of state.
The strained relationship between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny has dominated Ukrainian domestic politics for over a year now. Zaluzhny’s dismissal, which finally came on February 8, had long been expected, but the news still eclipsed other events and gave rise to a whole host of predictions about what awaits the Ukrainian army under its new commander. The potential political consequences at home also appear to be far-reaching. By firing Zaluzhny, Zelensky is taking a major risk. Never before has he so blatantly defied the public consensus for the sake of his own political survival.
At the start of the war, the relationship between Zelensky and Zaluzhny looked like something out of a Hollywood movie: the president and the general standing shoulder to shoulder to defend their country. Inevitably, Western and Ukrainian media created a cult out of these heroes. But the reality was very different.
Ultimately, the relationship fell victim to two eternal Ukrainian curses: premature delight at success, and an inopportune clash of ambitions. Zelensky had invested all of his global media authority in the idea of an imminent victory for Ukraine as a result of a successful counteroffensive. After the failure of that counteroffensive, he felt deceived by the military. It became clear that the Ukrainian president was no longer willing to tolerate an independent commander-in-chief, or indeed the autonomy of the army as a whole. The moratorium on criticizing each other was lifted, and politics returned to Kyiv with a vengeance.
Now the Ukrainian leader wants to present Zaluzhny’s departure as part of a “reboot of the system,” but it’s obvious that the main reason for the commander-in-chief’s removal was political rivalry. As long as it was only a matter of managerial disagreements, cooperation between the two men remained possible, but after the publication of ratings showing that Zaluzhny had begun to outperform Zelensky, the duumvirate was doomed. It was unacceptable to Zelensky and his team that the commander-in-chief should win the people’s love and political points while the civilian authorities and president take all the flack.
The president chose a good moment for a major shake-up. He could easily remove several other senior security figures and officials at the same time: no one is irreplaceable anymore outside of the president’s office. The military threat from Russia acts as a check on possible eruptions of public anger, since no one wants to help the enemy by taking to the streets to protest. Just to be on the safe side and head off any potential troublemakers, Zelensky has already warned that a “Maidan 3 [street revolution] will be organized with the support of the Russian secret services.”
Nor will there be the military coup that the Kremlin so longs for. The Ukrainian army understands perfectly well that any major challenge to Zelensky plays into the hands of the enemy.
Still, this triumph of political expediency is a ticking time bomb, and adds to the day of reckoning the Ukrainian government will face from society after the war. In May this year, Zelensky’s constitutional powers expire with the end of his term. There will be no shortage of people ready to remind the president just how precarious his wartime legitimacy is. The proportion of Ukrainians who believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction was already more than a third in January 2024.
The choice of Zaluzhny’s successor also says a lot. General Oleksandr Syrsky could not be more different to Zaluzhny, who came up through the military ranks of an independent Ukraine. Syrsky, meanwhile, is eight years older than his predecessor, was born in central Russia (his parents still live there), and attended a military training academy in Moscow.
Of course, Syrsky is still among the Westernizers within the Ukrainian military elite. Even under the pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych, he worked in Brussels as part of cooperation with NATO, and advocated for the introduction of NATO standards to the Ukrainian armed forces. But due to his age and background, Syrsky clearly belongs to the Soviet military school. For that reason, it’s extremely unlikely that he will ever become such a significant political figure in Ukraine as Zaluzhny.
Syrsky has plenty of combat experience, having taken part in the fierce fighting over the Donbas city of Debaltsevo in 2015 and then commanded the joint forces in the Donbas, followed by Ukraine’s ground forces from 2019 when Zelensky came to power. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Syrsky has been credited with two successful operations: the defense of Kyiv in February–March 2022 (for which he was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine), and the counteroffensive in the summer and fall of 2022 that drove the Russians out of the Kharkiv region. It was after this that his name started being mentioned as a potential new commander-in-chief.
Those successes, however, were followed by the defense of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which many in the Ukrainian military consider a pointless loss of life on a massive scale. Bakhmut earned Syrsky the dubious reputation of a commander who does not count his losses. Zaluzhny was against the defense of the strategically unimportant Donbas town, but Zelensky was in favor, and it was with this operation that Syrsky earned the trust of the president.
It seems fair to assume, therefore, that the new commander-in-chief will continue to act in line with the president’s wishes. That includes the painful issue of mobilization, which is becoming inevitable given the number of troops at the enemy’s disposal. Zelensky badly wanted to shift responsibility for mobilization onto the military, and Syrsky will most likely take on the role of “bad cop” in this situation.
Leaving Zaluzhny in his post would have meant continuing to cultivate a dangerous rival, but his dismissal gives him free rein to build his own political career. It is worth recalling, however, that the president’s office has both carrots and sticks at its disposal. Last fall, the Ukrainian security services opened an investigation into the surrender of southern Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion, and Zaluzhny was allegedly called in for questioning—as a witness, for now.
It goes without saying that Ukraine’s political opposition would welcome Zaluzhny with open arms. Representatives of former president Petro Poroshenko’s party are already competing to see who can sing the praises of the outgoing commander-in-chief the loudest. Zaluzhny is in any case ideologically closer to that camp, and there are many of Poroshenko’s people among his advisers.
But it makes no sense for Zaluzhny, a popular general with an impeccable reputation, to get involved with Poroshenko, who remains deeply unpopular, especially since there are no elections on the horizon. It’s more likely, therefore, that Zaluzhny will take a break and wait, carefully observing the actions of his successor and preparing for future political battles—presuming, of course, that he does actually have his sights set on a career in politics.
No less interesting is how Zelensky himself will come out of Zaluzhny’s removal, given that this is the first time he has so openly gone against the tide of public opinion. His decision will have alienated those voters who see the country’s military personnel as heroes and Zaluzhny as their leader. But that’s only half the story. According to polls, a full 72 percent of Ukrainians—about the same number who voted for Zelensky—disagree with Zaluzhny’s removal.
The public’s affections are nothing if not fickle, however, and it’s possible that with time, the “iron general” will start to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in 2022, the second most trusted figure in Ukraine after Zelensky was his then adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, now disgraced and considered nothing short of toxic.
Right now, Zelensky is clearly going all out to reinvent himself. He is trying to once again lift the nation’s spirits with talk of an imminent victory and a total reboot of the system. Most likely, he will be at least partially successful: there are no grounds for the doom-filled prophecies issuing from Poroshenko’s circles that without Zaluzhny, Ukraine faces disaster. But the circumstances of his departure do create the impression of a president who is overreaching his hand by more or less openly putting narrow and selfish interests before considerations of state, with consequences that are hard to predict.