If Zaluzny Is Out, Who Could Become Ukraine’s Next Commander-in-Chief?

The popular general may be part of a wider reshuffle as President Zelensky seeks a new start 

6 February 2024

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Speculation surrounding General Zaluzhny’s potential resignation appears to be substantiated, prompting an examination of the prospective successor to lead the Ukrainian army and the military’s response to this development.

Since 29 January, various Ukrainian officials and journalists have raised speculation that General Valerii Zaluzhny, a prominent figure in Ukrainian society, is on the brink of being dismissed as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

President Volodymir Zelenskyy has so far refused to confirm if he had already initiated formal steps to remove the popular general but said on the record he was planning a major reshuffle at the top of the leadership in response to mounting challenges off and on the battlefield.

Divergence in the course of action

“There is definitely a need for a reset, a new beginning. When we talk about this, I mean the replacement of several state leaders, not just in one sector, such as the military, Zelenskyy told Italian television.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the potential removal of Zaluzhny, 50, reflects a noticeable divergence in military perspectives between the president and the commander-in-chief, just as Russia seems bent on trying to capitalise on the Ukrainian army’s shortage of soldiers and equipment.

Ukraine failed to execute their announced plans for counter-offensive operations last summer, while delays in Western aid and equipment deliveries have put the country’s war effort on the back foot.

An exception to this has been Ukraine’s commendable naval efforts, but it is important to note that naval operations fall under the jurisdiction of distinct entities, separate from those responsible for other military actions.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that Zelenskyy has become disheartened by Zaluzhny’s performance, considering the ineffective nature of his chosen strategy in 2023. Ukraine has been left bereft of the valuable resources extended by its global allies and seen the gradual loss of personnel and territorial control.

Despite this, Zaluzhny’s popularity cannot be overstated, as polls consistently indicate his strong support. Ukrainians attribute the thwarting of Russian plans in 2022 and the prevention of a “capture of Kyiv in three days” to Zaluzhny’s efforts.

News of the general’s potential resignation has caused a stir within Ukrainian society. Intriguingly, it was the opposition’s lawmakers – affiliated with former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party – who first disseminated the news of his alleged dismissal.

It is worth highlighting the affiliation of the commander-in-chief’s circle with the political party of Poroshenko. Zaluzhny, although never overtly revealing any political aspirations, could potentially emerge as a formidable political adversary to Zelenskyy following his dismissal.

The former President Poroshenko reacted critically to Zaluzhny’s resignation on his Facebook page:

“Zaluzhny’s resignation, if true, is a shot in the foot for national unity, the need for which is understood by both us and our partners. This decision was not motivated by military and strategic considerations. The risks and threats from its adoption have not been analysed. It is based on emotions and jealousy, which cannot be [a guide] in times of war!.”

Who could take Zaluzhny’s place?

Prior to receiving Zelenskyy’s official statement denying that Zaluzhny had been dismissed, Ukrainians had already commenced their efforts to assess the leadership qualities of esteemed Head of Military Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov and Army Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi, as they would be the main candidates for Zaluzhny’s replacement.

Among all the contenders, Budanov has emerged as the most compelling choice. Ukrainians revere him, and Budanov has attained legendary status due to his audacious and triumphant past endeavours against the Russians in Crimea.

Moreover, he has recently spearheaded successful military intelligence naval operations and holds the unwavering stance that Ukraine should attack Russia even on its territory, which further bolsters his credibility.

In this moment of uncertainty, one thing remains indisputable: the ambiguous future of the Armed Forces chief has not only sparked numerous conspiracy theories but has also drawn the attention of purveyors of Russian propaganda. On 29 January, Moscow’s propagandists swiftly seized upon this wave of new information, eager to exacerbate tensions in Ukraine.

Among these Russian propagandists, Evgeny Popov and his wife Olga Skabeeva wasted no time in disseminating conspiracies on Russian TV of an imminent “palace coup” in Kyiv while also invoking memories of a new Maidan, all the while expressing their sinister desire to witness the self-destruction of the Ukrainian people.

In Russian telegram channels, a spurious claim emerged suggesting that a contingent of Ukrainian soldiers had even boldly paraded to Kyiv in reaction to the announcement of Zaluzhny’s departure.

The reaction of the Ukrainian military

The Ukrainian military’s stance on the potential resignation of their commander-in-chief is also an important point of discussion. Regardless of Russian aspirations, Ukrainian soldiers reacted relatively calmly although some have suggested unease.

“This is not entirely good because, firstly, Zaluzhny is a very popular leader, and secondly, it is important for us, for soldiers, that we understand that there is a unity in the headquarters – people who are trusted and believed,” Captain Petro Kuzyk, Commander of the Svoboda battalion, told to Ukrainian media Radio Svoboda.

According to one military expert, Ukrainian Army General Mykola Malomuzh, the dismissal of Zaluzhny will lead to an imbalance and may cause distrust in the troops:

“Yesterday, I spoke to many generals who are at the front. They expressed their position against Zaluzhny’s dismissal. Civilians also say that this will lead to an imbalance and the appointment of other people and may cause distrust in the troops,” he said on the air of KYIV 24 TV channel.

Ihor Romanenko, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2006-2010, believes that the problems lie in the leadership system itself. “All military structures in our country should be under the authority of the commander-in-chief,” he said.

“However, in Zaluzhny’s case, this did not actually occur. Legally, it was the case, but in reality, it was not. This created problems as the intelligence and air force operated independently instead of being coordinated under Zaluzhny’s leadership as the Commander-in-Chief. As a consequence, events unfolded unfavourably for the potential combat operations of the Ukrainian defence forces.” Romanenko commented on Radio Svoboda.

As a shake-up in leadership appears imminent, President Zelenskyy’s decision to replace  General Zaluzhny is expected to have far-reaching implications, extending beyond a mere adjustment in personnel.

The prime minister’s position could also be subject to alteration, and there may even be changes within the president’s office. It is evident that Ukraine stands on the edge of transformative developments, with the hope that this will lead to positive outcomes on the battlefield.

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This article is published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Photo from the president of Ukraine’s website where all materials featured on the site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International and are available here.

*This article was updated to correct General Zaluzhny’s age as 50, not 58.

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Aleksandra Klitina is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a Senior Correspondent for Kyiv Post, with over a decade of experience in private and public institutions, including serving as a former Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure. She has a background in advocating infrastructure and public administration reforms and has worked on EU projects in Ukraine.

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