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Ukraine looks for new start after Zelensky fires top general

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired his top general in the biggest military shakeup since Russia invaded, a sign that Kyiv is searching for a new start as Ukraine faces pressure to overcome major setbacks in the war.  

Zelensky’s removal last week of Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, who was commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces since 2021, is unlikely to change the dynamics on the battlefield, where Ukrainian troops face enormous challenges against a larger Russian army. At the same time, more U.S. security aid is in doubt. 

But appointing a new commander in chief, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, who was the head of Ukraine’s ground forces, allows Zelensky to deliver a political message: Kyiv is demanding a fresh strategy and leadership to address those challenges. 

“Zelensky is looking for some way to affect the way the war is going, and the best thing you can do at this point is replace Zaluzhny,” said David Silbey, a professor at Cornell University who studies defense policy.  

“I think it’s more of a sign of desperation,” he added, summing up the thinking as: “We don’t actually have anything we can do that will make a substantial difference, but we’re going to do something anyway.”

While the exact reason for his firing is unclear, Zaluzhny’s dismissal was weeks in the making, an expected development after highly public rifts between him and Zelensky.

Fissures in their relationship appeared in 2022 in small ways, like when Zelensky criticized the military for forcing Ukrainians to gain permission for residency changes. And the rift only grew after Ukrainian military setbacks last year. 

Zaluzhny clashed with Zelensky in recent months, after he offered his opinions in the media. In a November interview with The Economist, he called the war a “stalemate,” something the Ukrainian president disputed. After the failed counteroffensive, the general offered a dimmer view of the war, challenging Zelensky’s narrative that Ukraine just needed more weapons and aid to beat back Russia. He wrote for CNN that Ukraine “must contend with a reduction in military support from key allies, grappling with their own political tensions.” 

While there was speculation that Zaluzhny posed a political threat to Zelensky because of his immense popularity, the firing was likely more about dueling narratives from the two leaders, said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. 

“On the one hand, you have the narrative from Zelensky, which is full of hopes and that we’re doing the job, in order to secure Western support,” he said. “And on the other hand, you have the more realistic narrative that it’s not going according to plans, and that right now Ukraine is suffering and unless a technological breakthrough occurs, the situation of Ukraine won’t change anytime soon. You had a conflict of two narratives that sent two conflicting messages to Western allies.” 

When he announced the changing of the guard on Thursday, Zelensky said it was “not about politics.” He thanked Zaluzhny for his time and said he offered him another position, but he stressed it was time for new leadership and that the “generalship must be reset.” 

Zaluzhny led the war as Ukraine repelled the Russian invasion in the early days and as forces retook territory in the Kherson and Kharkiv counteroffensives in fall 2022, earning him significant popularity. 

But the tide has since turned against Ukraine after a highly anticipated counteroffensive last year failed to make it past entrenched Russian forces that built up heavy defenses across the 600-mile front. 

And Ukraine is running low on ammunition and resources, a source of significant concern in Kyiv because the U.S. continues to debate whether to send Ukrainian troops new money. Zelensky has traveled twice to Washington since September to meet with congressional leaders. 

 Zelensky noted Ukraine’s difficulties with the war in his Thursday speech, warning that the Ukrainian people were “speaking of victory less often.” 

“We failed to achieve the goals of our state on land,” Zelensky said of the failed 2023 counteroffensive. “We have to be honest, the feeling of stagnation … has affected the public mood.” 

The Ukrainian president also pushed for a “realistic, detailed” plan of action for 2024, tasking Syrsky, the new top armed forces commander, with formulating a strategy. 

Syrsky quickly announced “new tasks,” including speeding up weapons deliveries, rotating units and investing more heavily in strategies like drones and electronic warfare.  

“Only changes and constant improvements of the means and methods of warfare will make it possible to achieve success on this path,” he wrote on Telegram.

But Syrsky will confront the same challenges as his predecessor, many of which are out of his control, including Ukraine’s dependence on Washington for aid.  

Robert Murrett, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral and now a professor at Syracuse University, said the war has entered a new phase and predicted an “operational tactical reset” but no major battlefield movements. 

“I don’t expect to see any dramatic shifts in the activity by the Ukrainian army,” he said, “but the leadership remains strong. I think we’ll see evidence of that very clearly in the months ahead.” 

Syrsky is known for successfully defending Kyiv against Russian forces in 2022 and for the Kharkiv counteroffensive that reclaimed ground from Moscow that year. 

He served in the Soviet Union and attended a Moscow military school before he began fighting Russian-backed separatist units in 2014 and quickly rose in the ranks. He is valued for his nimble tactics and surprise maneuvers, but also for keeping up morale, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

Syrsky is still not as popular as Zaluzhny, who is almost as well-liked as Zelensky. It’s not clear whether the change in command will have a demoralizing effect on troop morale, especially amid a bleak war.  

Elina Beketova, a democracy fellow at CEPA, said Ukrainians spent much of Thursday lamenting the loss of Zaluzhny but have rebounded to unify around Syrsky. 

“For many, many months [Zaluzhny] has been the face of bravery in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and he has a lot of support,” Beketova said, but “people are accepting the idea and they feel that it’s a good start of something new.” 

Along with command shifts, Zelensky said he wants a “different approach to mobilization” and the rotation of troops on the front line.  

The Ukrainian leader had clashed with the military during Zaluzhny’s tenure over a proposal to mobilize some 500,000 people for the war. That proved to be a political risk, and Zelensky said he needed more time to look at that proposal, though a bill to stiffen mobilization laws is already working its way through the Ukrainian Parliament. 

Syrsky is expected to bring a fresh set of eyes to troop rotations, a critical part of the war as commanders must actively replace exhausted soldiers who have fought for months on the frontlines. 

Alp Sevimlisoy, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council, said appointing a new commander could also lead to a more streamlined dialogue with the U.S., which reportedly had small disputes with Ukraine during the 2023 counteroffensive about where to best punch at Russian lines. 

Sevimlisoy said there should be more “direct synchronicity with the United States” and he assessed Ukraine was evolving into a more “capable wartime state,” which would naturally involve domestic and political leadership changes. 

“The Ukrainian Armed Forces has gone from being just a defensive army fighting against Russia, to a wider army that is defending the tenants of [the West] because the campaign … is not just a campaign to stop Russia,” he said. “It is a wider conflict, where we are preserving the integrity of NATO.” 

A shake-up of the top military brass is generally routine in any long war, and it does give Zelensky’s administration the chance to try something new, according to analysts. 

But Edward Arnold, a European research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, warned that if Syrsky oversees a retreat, that could backfire, a real risk as Russia is pressing to take the town of Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region.

Syrsky is “known as the defender of Kyiv and also [for] the Kharkiv counteroffensive and then suddenly he will be responsible for a withdrawal that people don’t want to make,” Arnold said. “It might also backfire on Zelensky because it’ll be Zelensky who changed things and already there’s been an operational loss.” 

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