Zelenskiy replaces Ukraine’s top general and demands ‘urgent’ changes in army

Military shake-up comes amid heavy Russian attacks and worries over troop numbers and arms supplies

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy dismissed his country’s popular top general and said it was time for “urgent changes” in the army, nearly two years into Russia’s full invasion and following a failed counteroffensive that he said had sapped the nation’s morale.

Mr Zelenskiy thanked Valery Zaluzhnyi for his service and asked him to remain in the military leadership, while naming as his replacement Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces and someone seen as having good relations with the president.

“We withstood the first year [of all-out war)]. We started to reclaim our ground. We proved to the world that Russia can lose ... But unfortunately, we failed to achieve the goals of our state on land,” Mr Zelenskiy said of last summer’s failed counteroffensive.

“We have to be honest – the feeling of stagnation specifically in the southern directions and the difficulties in the battles in the [eastern] Donetsk region have affected the public mood. Ukrainians are speaking of victory less often. However, the Ukrainian spirit has not lost faith in victory. Ukraine retains its historic chance. It is our duty to realise it,” he added.


“I am grateful to General Zaluzhnyi for two years of defence. I am grateful for every victory we have achieved together ... Today we had a frank discussion about the changes needed in the army. Urgent changes.”

The shake-up is risky because polls show Gen Zaluzhnyi to be Ukraine’s most popular public figure, and the country now needs to draft hundreds of thousands more people into its beleaguered military while holding off intense Russian attacks along the 1,000km front line in the east. Reports suggest Gen Zaluzhnyi wanted to mobilise about 500,000 people, but Mr Zelenskiy baulked at that number for political and economic reasons.

Support from the West has also started to waver, and US military aid to Kyiv is currently frozen due to political disputes in Washington. Top officials in Ukraine, Europe and the US have insisted that any change to Kyiv’s top brass would not affect relations with allies.

Mr Zelenskiy praised Col Gen Syrskyi for leading the defence of Kyiv after Russia’s full invasion in February 2022 and the liberation of the eastern Kharkiv region that autumn – an operation that the president reportedly ordered despite opposition from Gen Zaluzhnyi.

Gen Zaluzhnyi posted a message on social media alongside a photo of him smiling and shaking hands with Mr Zelenskiy: “In the first, most difficult days of the ... war, we stood against a vile and powerful enemy. We held out together. Our battle continues and changes daily. The tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024. Therefore, everyone must change and adapt to new realities as well. So that we win together too.”

Earlier on Thursday Ukraine said it shot down 11 of 17 Iranian-supplied Shahed drones fired by Russia. Several buildings were damaged but no casualties were reported in the strikes on the Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Vinnytsia regions, a day after five people were killed and more than 50 injured in a barrage of 64 missiles and drones.

Moscow’s ground forces continued to attack Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar in the eastern Donetsk region and Kupiansk in the northeastern province of Kharkiv, in what analysts say is a bid to hand victories to Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin before he runs in what is set to be a sham presidential election on March 17th, and also to exploit the Ukrainian army’s growing concerns over dwindling western supplies.

“Unfortunately the enemy is pressing from all directions. There is no area of our city that is more or less calm. They are really storming with very large forces,” said Vitaliy Barabash, the head of Avdiivka’s administration.

White House efforts to send $60 billion (€56bn) in new military aid to Kyiv are still blocked by Republicans, who demand that priority be given to tightening security on the southern US border – a key issue in Donald Trump’s campaign for re-election this year.

“Dear Republican Senators of America. Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us to win back our freedom and independence, must be turning in his grave today. Shame on you,” Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said on social media on Thursday.

Meanwhile Russian presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin vowed to appeal against an election commission decision to bar him from the March vote due to alleged irregularities in the signed list of 100,000 supporters that is a condition of entry into the ballot. He is the only would-be challenger to criticise Mr Putin’s war on Ukraine, which he has called “a fatal mistake”.

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Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe