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What Does the Firing of Valerii Zaluzhny Mean for Ukraine?

By: Hunter Albert

Twitter: @TheLatestByte

Post Date: 2024-05-09

On February 8th of 2024, president of Ukraine Volodomyr Zelensky removed General Valerii Zaluzhny from his office of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, replacing him with Colonel-General Syrsky. In contrast to Syrsky, also known as “Syrsky the Butcher” by some Ukrainian service members, Zaluzhny has repeatedly decried pressure to sell the lives of his men for the promise of little to no gain; and with this undermining of Ukrainian morale it is hard to say if this bodes well for the Ukrainian military. This replacement is a curious move by the Ukrainian president, as Zaluzhny served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for some 3 years, and became a popular figure in Ukrainian politics during the conflict in Ukraine. But what does this mean for the AFU, who is General Zaluzhny, and why replace him now?


General Valerii Zaluzhny is a 4 star General in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, having graduated with a gold medal from the National Academy of Defense of Ukraine in 2007, taking his first command as Chief of Staff and First Deputy Commander of the 24th Mechanized Brigade, in the Lviv Oblast. In 2014, Zaluzhny graduated from the Ivan Cherniakhovskyi National Defense University of Ukraine, and in 2017 was appointed the Chief of Staff – First Deputy Commander of Ukraine's Operational Command West. The next year, he was appointed Chief of the Joint Operational Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, first Deputy Commander of the Joint Forces. Finally, on July 27th, 2021, President Zelensky appointed Zaluzhny as Commander-in-Chief.


Representing the new generation of the Ukrainian officer corps, Zaluzhny has prioritized reformation within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, stating that “The overall course of reforming Ukraine's Armed Forces in line with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) principles and standards remains irreversible (...) The key here is the principles.” This became important, as these principles and standards Zaluzhny was reforming the AFU towards proved to be crucial in the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion in February of 2022. During the invasion, and the war that followed, Zaluzhny has been praised by many and important military minds, including that of U.S. General Mark Milley; and credited by General Milley as being the driving force behind Ukraine's ability to hold its defense when Western analysts and military minds were anticipating a Ukrainian retreat, and evacuation of key personnel including Zaluzhny; saying of the Ukrainian general “Zaluzhny has emerged as the military mind his country needed.” Adding, “His leadership enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to adapt quickly with battlefield initiative against the Russians”

With his credentials as an effective, and intelligent, leader firmly established, why the firing of General Zaluzhny? Some suspect this is a political move by President Zelensky, as Ukrainian polls have consistently shown a resounding approval from the populace, a January 2023 poll revealing an 87% approval rating, and a December poll of 2023 showing an 88% approval rating. Could this move be political, or is something else at play? It is well known that Zelensky and Zaluzhny have been at political odds; Zaluzhny's high approval ratings among the populace have caused speculation that he may attempt a political career, possibly even taking the office held by Zelensky when elections are again held. Furthermore, for over a year reports have been made of the strained relationship between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, with Zaluzhny having even been reported as going behind the president's back to negotiate for supplies and support personally.


Following the dismissal from his post as Commander-in-Chief, both Zaluzhny and Zelensky discussed the need for a change in approach and strategy, as the war in Ukraine is entering its third year off the back of a failed counteroffensive. This failed counteroffensive may well be the reason for Zaluzhny’s dismissal. His reasoning for the failure of the offensive touched on the shortage of munitions, demining equipment, the dearth of time needed to effectively train fresh recruits to Western standards, and a lack of equipment needed for air superiority, while unnamed US officials have laid the blame on Zaluzhny for not committing to US-drawn plans for a single, all-out assault. Zaluzhny’s choice to commit his forces more broadly across the war effort, and a disagreement with American advisors on the timing of the operations has been viewed by some as being the primary reason for the failed counter-offensive. 


It is well known that Ukraine does not have the capacity to meet Western expectations of retaking Crimea, given that they are facing shortages and the rationing of crucial munitions, and, also, lack the air superiority to contend with the Russian fleet of aircraft that has dogged their advances for the entirety of the war. This failure is an understandable one, when taken into context of the logistics and mathematical realities of waging war. Facing a numerically superior force, with greater access to material needed to prosecute hostilities, and lacking air superiority (or even the ability to fully contest air space,) Zaluzhny has repeatedly decried pressure to sell the lives of his men dearly for the strong potential that small, or indeed no, gains would be made; stating “We defend every bit of our land. But when enemy shells start to churn up this narrow strip along with the stones, the soil, and our soldiers – the lives of our soldiers are more important to us.” This attitude towards the American-advised plan towards re-taking Crimea - with estimates from them of up to forty percent casualties - fed into Zaluzhny’s decision to mount multiple separate prongs of attack along the offensive line, rather than committing to an all-out assault as he had been advised to do.  


This dismissal means that the AFU is under the command of Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky as of February 8th, 2024. He was educated in the 1980s during the days of the Soviet Union, and served in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Czechoslovakia before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Syrsky, a highly-decorated officer who could be considered to be part of the “old guard” of the AFU, represents a shift away from the military philosophy of Valerii Zaluzhny, and back towards the top-heavy Soviet doctrine that Russia itself still uses today. This is the change in approach and strategy declared by Zelensky, and Zaluzhny, but it is not without its critics. 


During the Battle for Bakhmut, Syrsky was criticized for pursuing these Soviet-style military tactics, which resulted in significant loss of manpower and material, and the loss of Bakhmut to the numerically superior Russian forces. This lost siege, and the tactics employed, earned Syrsky the epithets “General 200,” inspired by the military code “200” for “Killed In Action,” and the name of “Syrsky the Butcher.”

However, Syrsky's service record is not all blunder and bloodshed. as Syrsky is also credited with engineering the successful Kharkiv Offensive, and the initial organization and leadership of the defense of Kyiv in the earliest stages of the war. Furthermore, due to his age and time spent in service in first the armed forces of the USSR, and subsequent service in the AFU, Zelensky has characterized Syrsky as “the most experienced Ukrainian commander.” On the topic of politics, Syrsky's relationship with Zelensky is widely seen as a strong one, with the pair often being pictured together during presidential visits to freshly liberated territories. This represents a shift, away from the strained relationship between Zaluzhny and Zelensky during the prosecution of the defense and liberation of Ukrainian territory, and towards a close relationship unlikely to cause problems of non-cooperation between the president and the Commander-In-Chief.


With Syrsky's credentials standing as they do, the backlash from Ukrainian service members on social media can’t be ignored. A Ukrainian soldier writes on X, “We are all screwed,” with others on Telegram decrying the appointment as a senseless political move. To add to this, a Ukrainian reserve officer posts “General Syrsky's leadership is bankrupt, his presence or orders coming from his name are demoralizing (...) he undermines trust.” This is a grave reaction. Because, as Ukraine continues to fight through shortages of manpower and material,  morale has been widely touted as the best resource they have to draw on; motivated personnel fight harder, operate more courageously, and feel safe in the knowledge that their superiors will take care of them. With this morale being directly undermined, it is hard to say whether this replacement of Zaluzhny bodes well for the AFU and a repeat of the Kharkiv Offensive can be made, or if it presages disaster as the servicemembers of the AFU lose faith in their command.

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