Why Zelenskyy fired Zaluzhnyi

  • Themes: Ukraine, War

The Ukrainian president will be hoping that just as his selection of Valerii Zaluzhnyi as commander-in-chief in 2021 helped save Ukraine in 2022, the selection of Oleksandr Syrskyi in 2024 will have a similar impact on Ukraine’s military fortunes.

Valerii Zaluzhnyi listens to Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a ceremony marking the Day of Ukrainian Statehood on Mykhailivska Square, July 28, 2023.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi listens to Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a ceremony marking the Day of Ukrainian Statehood on Mykhailivska Square, July 28, 2023. Credit: Ukraine Presidents Office / Alamy Stock Photo

On Thursday evening in Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly announced the dismissal of his military commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi to be replaced by Oleksandr Syrskyi. Part of the stated rationale was Zelenskyy’s desire to reset and re-energise decision making, and to lead reform in the armed forces to address several key challenges.

The irony is that in July 2021, President Zelenskyy appointed Zaluzhnyi for exactly the same reasons.

As part of Ukraine’s efforts to improve its military after its poor performance in 2014, the government separated operational from policy positions. Concurrently, Ukraine aimed to shift from its Soviet military legacy, and become more aligned with NATO structures and doctrine. To lead this reform in the military, Zelensky chose the 48-year-old Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

A relatively junior general in the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the time, Zaluzhnyi had begun life on a military garrison in the Zhytomyr region in northern Ukraine. Joining the armed forces as the old Soviet Union crumbled, throughout his career Zaluzhnyi showed an interest in western military institutions, their doctrines and their leadership models. Ultimately, his curiosity about new modalities in warfighting and the impacts of new technologies would lead him to write on the topic publicly in 2022, 2023 and just this month. It is probably part of the reason for why he was dismissed.

The tensions in the Zelenskyy-Zaluzhnyi relationship have been apparent for at least the past year. This is not unusual in democracies. Whether it is peacetime or wartime, tensions always occur in civil-military relationships. A crucial principle in civil-military relations stands out: civilian-military relationships are, as Eliot Cohen writes, an ‘unequal dialogue.’ The civilian leader always has primacy, even if he is wrong.

President Zelenskyy released a video and an accompanying speech transcript which outlined the dismissal of his commander-in-chief. In it, he noted : ‘I am grateful to General Zaluzhnyi for two years of defence. I appreciate every victory we have achieved together, thanks to all the Ukrainian warriors who are heroically carrying this war on their shoulders. We candidly discussed issues in the army that require change. Urgent change.’

Why was ‘urgent change’ required?

The lack of success in the 2023 counter-offensive, and the various public statements by General Zaluzhnyi about the trajectory of the war, have strained the relationship between the president and military commander-in-chief. Adding to this, sensitivities in the president’s circle about Zaluzhnyi’s possible presidential aspirations have combined to bring tensions to a head. Something had to give.

What might be the key reasons for the Zaluzhnyi dismissal now?

First, Zelenskyy believed that someone had to bear responsibility for the 2023 failures which did not deliver the battlefield success many had hoped for. While there were notable achievements with Ukraine’s strategic strike efforts and Black Sea operations, the main aspect that had to succeed was the 2023 southern counteroffensive. The consequences of the failure of this operation were significant. There were large numbers of casualties, and very little Ukrainian territory in the south was liberated. Russian propaganda exploited this, but, more seriously, the lack of success on the battlefield exacerbated civil-military tensions and resulted in some, especially in the US Congress, blocking military support for Ukraine.

In the wake of such visible failure, accountability was critical. There are competing theories about the level of political interference concerning the timing and conduct of the counteroffensive. But as the most senior military commander and advisor on military issues to President Zelenskyy, it was General Zaluzhnyi who had to bear the ultimate responsibility for the military failure.

A second reason may be that Zelenskyy did not appreciate Zaluzhnyi’s public intervention in the ongoing mobilisation debate. Shortages of Ukrainian frontline troops continue to be reported. A combination of this and a lack of ammunition has seen the Russians exploit the situation with attacks across the east and south. The commander-in-chief, desperate to get a large scale injection of personnel to stabilise the situation and to rotate exhausted frontline soldiers, made a public intervention about the mobilisation debate in December last year. The Ukrainian president will not have liked the statements by Zaluzhnyi in this political debate, even if Zaluzhnyi was right.

A third rationale for Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal may have been his public comments and treatises on modern warfare. Zaluzhnyi published an article in 2022 on the war and how warfare was evolving, as well as a nine-page treatise on Positional Warfare in late 2023. The 2023 paper was accompanied by an interview with The Economist which caused a furore when the term ‘stalemate’ was used. Most recently, Zaluzhnyi published another paper on modern warfare, which contained fundamental elements of what he thought should be the military strategy for 2024. Crucially, he also wrote comments critical of the government in the paper, including a critique of bureaucratic decision making.

General Zaluzhnyi is generally regarded as a ‘non-political’ general. While senior military officers must avoid ‘politics’, they do need to be ‘politically aware’ and understand how their actions and statements might have an impact on the overall conduct of a war. Wars are national endeavours, requiring all national resources. When Zaluzhnyi made statements in the press, they probably had an impact on other national endeavours including diplomacy and strategic influence operations.

A final reason that Zelenskyy may have wanted new energy in the military high command is that he was dissatisfied with the existing strategy for 2024 and beyond. Ukraine does need a different and reinvigorated strategy for this year. Driven by the failures of 2023, an evolving Russian military that is improving its performance, and declining attention and military support from the West, Zelenskyy possibly felt that a more extensive reset of strategy was needed than that proposed by Zaluzhnyi.

While Zaluzhnyi had written publicly this month about a revised strategy, Zelenskyy probably wanted to develop an evolved strategy out of the public gaze.  It will be a critical undertaking for General Syrskyi in the coming weeks. President Zelenskyy even provides the key elements of a new strategy, including the resolution of training, equipping and headquarters staffing issues, in the speech that dismissed Zaluzhnyi.

Zelenskyy clearly believed that a reset in strategy and leadership was necessary for 2024. That, and the point that his relationship had deteriorated to a point where their differences could not be resolved, would have been key factors in the timing of the dismissal. That said, the timing is awkward. The passage of the bill for Ukraine support is before the US Congress, and this civil-military issue would not have helped.

Notwithstanding Zelenskyy’s desire for a reinvigorated military leadership in 2024, wanting it and getting it are two very different things. Zaluzhnyi’s replacement, General Syrskyi, is a polarising figure. There is no certainty that he shares Zaluzhnyi’s views on the evolution of modern war, or that he can work effectively with the President or his own senior military commanders. This is not to damn his tenure at the beginning, but it is a recognition that in war, uncertainty abounds. Even the best intentions can have an array of unintended consequences.

The Ukrainian president will be hoping that just as his selection of a junior general in 2021 had the unintended consequence of saving Ukraine in 2022, the selection of General Syrskyi in 2024 will have a similar impact on Ukraine’s military fortunes. The future of Ukraine is relying on it.


Mick Ryan