Zelenskiy faces a battle to revive public mood and army morale after replacing his top military commander

Valery Zaluzhnyi, who was dismissed on Thursday evening, was seen across Ukraine as a symbol of the nation’s survival, but stalled summer offensive dialled up discord

Ukraine is struggling to supply its armed forces with enough fresh soldiers and arms to keep Russia’s invasion force at bay, but president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has just created more uncertainty and potential pitfalls by replacing the military’s top commander.

Gen Valery Zaluzhnyi, who was dismissed on Thursday evening, led Ukraine’s defence through almost two years of all-out war, and for many compatriots he became a reassuring symbol of the nation’s survival – burly, apparently unflappable and with a fondness for jokes, and with calmness that conveyed a sense that everything was under control.

A survey in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that Zaluzhnyi enjoyed the trust of 92 per cent of Ukrainians, compared to 77 per cent for Zelenskiy, and that only 2 per cent of those polled would support his removal – compared to 72 per cent who would view it “negatively”.

It has never been plain sailing between the president and the general, and the military’s failure to make significant gains in last summer’s counteroffensive in southeastern Ukraine dialled up the discord and the likelihood of them parting ways.


According to reports of the run-up to Russia’s all-out invasion on February 24th 2022, Zaluzhnyi’s requests for extensive preparations for such an attack were rebuffed by a presidential administration that sought above all to avoid panic that could have crippled Ukraine’s economy, thrown society into chaos and further weakened its patchy defences.

Later that year, having stunned Russia and the world by driving back the Kremlin’s forces from Kyiv and northern Ukraine, Zaluzhnyi reportedly opposed Zelenskiy’s plan to try to liberate all of the eastern Kharkiv region, which the president hoped would exploit enemy disarray and ease pressure on the provincial capital, which is Ukraine’s second city.

Zaluzhnyi apparently preferred to focus on southeastern Ukraine and a risky and ambitious bid to split Russia’s forces in the Zaporizhzhia region and cut its land link to occupied Crimea on the Black Sea – which would later be the goal of the failed 2023 counteroffensive.

Zelenskiy prevailed and Russian troops were expelled from Kharkiv in a matter of weeks, thanks to an operation in September 2022 led by Col Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, who has now been tapped to replace Zaluzhnyi.

Syrskyi (58) is eight years older than his predecessor, was born in Russia and graduated from Moscow’s top military academy before moving to Ukraine in the 1980s, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He fought Russian-led militia in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions when war erupted there in 2014 and frequently visits units on the front line, but the perception in Ukraine is that he is less popular with regular troops than Zaluzhnyi.

Despite leading the defence of Kyiv as well as the liberation of Kharkiv, Syrskyi is for many Ukrainians associated with last year’s grinding battle for Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which inflicted very heavy casualties on Russian fighters – particularly the Wagner mercenary group – but also severely depleted some of Ukraine’s most experienced forces.

Zelenskiy accepted the rationale that Bakhmut presented a chance to pin down and cripple some of Moscow’s strongest attack units and, since finally taking the ruins of Bakhmut last May, Russia has not made any other gains, and the carnage in Wagner’s ranks sparked a one-day revolt last June that briefly looked like it could shake the Kremlin.

Critics say the operation undermined the subsequent counteroffensive, however, and Zelenskiy said on Thursday that last summer’s failure fuelled a “feeling of stagnation” that had “affected the public mood”. Now, he said in announcing the military shake-up, “Ukrainians are speaking of victory less often” and “urgent changes” were needed.

Zaluzhnyi annoyed the presidential administration late last year by describing the battlefield situation as a “stalemate”, and Zelenskiy made clear in replacing him that he wants to bring new thinking and energy to the military leadership at a tough time.

While hoping US Republicans will soon lift their block on fresh military aid to Ukraine, Zelenskiy and his allies must find a way to give weary troops a much-needed break and refresh the army’s ranks with hundreds of thousands of new soldiers.

Zelenskiy seems to have found Zaluzhnyi’s desire for up to 500,000 new fighters unacceptable for political and economic reasons, and he knows his popularity could suffer a severe blow if a new mobilisation law that is in the works is seen as unfair.

He suggested this week that deploying existing troops in new ways could help solve an extremely sensitive – and urgent – problem. “The Ukrainian defence forces are now almost a million people,” he said. “As of today, the majority of them have not felt the frontline in the same way as the minority who are ... actually fighting. This means that we need a different approach to rotations, in particular.”

Zelenskiy decreed on Friday that Zaluzhnyi would receive the nation’s highest award, the Hero of Ukraine medal.

As Ukraine braces for a third year of all-out war with its vast neighbour, the military man’s exit is a significant moment. But he may not have gone for good: members of Zelenskiy’s team were irked by a suspicion that Zaluzhnyi harbours political ambitions, and time will tell whether he intends to return to the grand stage, not as an ally but as a rival.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here