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Zelenskyy’s decision to replace Army Cmdr. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi follows days of speculation and months of reported tension between the two over strategy, as Ukraine’s counteroffensive has faltered and Kyiv’s allies have displayed growing weariness about backing its cause.
“We openly discussed today what changes are needed in the army. Urgent changes,” Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post. “I proposed to General Zaluzhny to continue together in the team of the Ukrainian state. I will be grateful for his consent.”
It was unclear whether Zaluzhnyi was fired or he resigned, but in a statement on his Facebook page, he said he’d had “an important and serious conversation” with Zelenskyy, and “a decision has been made about the need to change approaches and strategy.”
A popular figure who came to embody Ukraine’s fighting spirit, Zaluzhnyi is widely respected both at home and abroad. In dispensing with him, Zelenskyy may sharpen the focus on his own leadership as Ukraine battles a new offensive from the Kremlin’s forces and doubts over the continued supply of military assistance from the United States and others.
World Economic Forum 2024 (Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu via Getty Images):copyright: Ukrainian Presidency
Zaluzhnyi has been in charge of Ukraine’s army since before Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and is credited by many in Ukraine and the West with playing a crucial role in the country’s surprise defensive stand, holding the Russians in check for nearly two years.
But rumors about Zaluzhnyi’s future have long been circulating, fueled by widespread speculation of a falling-out with Zelenskyy over Ukraine’s battlefield prospects and the need for a mass mobilization of civilians to bolster the military ranks.
[ltr]in jeopardy this morning.[/ltr]
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In an editorial in the Economist last November, the general said the war had reached a stalemate and only a remarkable leap in military technology could get Ukraine out of the attritional quagmire.
Zelenskyy appeared to have been caught off guard by Zaluzhnyi’s comments and denied that the war was, in fact, at a stalemate. Even after last summer’s vaunted counteroffensive failed to yield any major breakthroughs, the Ukrainian president has insisted that Kyiv can retake all of its occupied territories militarily, without entering any peace negotiations with Russia.
Zaluzhnyi’s assessment appeared to pour cold water on Zelenskyy’s optimism.
Russia-Ukraine war on the New Year's Eve (Elif Kizil / Anadolu via Getty Images):copyright: Elif Kizil
The public airing of grievances spurred concerns in Ukraine and the West about the unity of Ukraine’s leadership, but Zelenskyy eventually brushed off any misunderstanding, saying there was no room for “personal politics” that play into Russia’s interests.
A career soldier, Zaluzhnyi, 50, and Zelenskyy have emerged as the top leaders in war-time Ukraine. While Zelenskyy’s approval ratings have slipped as many Ukrainians have grown disillusioned with the prolonged state of war, Zaluzhnyi, who rarely speaks in public, remains popular with the public and the military.
His firing could raise questions from Ukraine’s Western partners at a time when Zelenskyy is trying to keep his country’s fight at the top of the international agenda, amid increasing resistance in the West to fund Kyiv’s fight for much longer and a major conflict in the Middle East brewing. But it could also fuel backlash at home, where Zelenskyy has been accused by some officials of authoritarianism and has labeled any talk of elections, which were meant to take place this year, as irresponsible.
A poll in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 72% of Ukrainians would have a “negative attitude” to Zaluzhnyi’s resignation.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com