General of iron, president of hardened steel

Long gone is the phone call that General Valery Zalouzhny received from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2021, interrupting his wife’s birthday festivities.

That day, the actor who became head of state of Ukraine chose to entrust the reins of the armed forces to this experienced soldier, but who still had steps to climb. An unorthodox choice, but one that would prove beneficial during the Russian invasion of February 2022.

On Wednesday, after two weeks of persistent rumors, it was the same president who announced that Valery Zaluzhny, who has since been given the nickname “Iron General”, would be replaced as commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In the middle of a stalling war with Russia. And while he is the most popular man in the country, beating the one who just showed him the door to the post.

The least we can say is that it is a risky bet on the part of the Ukrainian president, who announced the news in an eight-minute televised speech as well as in a publication on of a need for renewal at the head of the armed forces. Nothing very convincing.

“The weak point of Zelensky’s decision is that he does not explain why he made it. Why he fired a general who was doing his job well,” notes Dominique Arel, holder of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.

At the start of the Russian invasion, the two men formed a formidable team. While President Zelensky embodied the courage of the Ukrainian population in the face of adversity and spent his time seeking help from his Western allies, General Zalouzhny surprised the entire planet by orchestrating the military defense of the country. That of David against Goliath. And he did surprisingly well.

In particular, decisions he took in the days preceding the invasion made it possible to defend the capital against the invader who dreamed of bringing down the Ukrainian government in a few days.

At the heart of his success, an innovative approach, very far from Soviet methods, even if the 50-year-old general, son of a Red Army officer, was trained in a cadet school of the communist regime. “He was very respected by his troops. The Ukrainian army in which he rose to prominence was rebuilt from the bottom up. His leadership came with something informal which brought more agility to the ranks,” notes Dominique Arel.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Army Chief Oleksandr Syrkyz view a map at a command post in the east of the country last November.

Nothing to do with the head of the army, Oleksandr Syrkyz, who will replace him and who is closer to the ultra-hierarchical Soviet approach, adds the expert.

It’s difficult to put your finger on the beginning of the quarrel between the president and the general, but on 1er last November, it became quite clear that something was wrong with the war room (crisis unit) Ukrainian.

Usually discreet, the military leader published an essay in The Economist and granted an interview to the famous magazine, popular with political leaders around the world. According to his assessment, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is at a “stalemate” and is turning into a “war of trenches and attrition”, comparable to the First World War.

These statements were made public at the very moment when Volodymyr Zelensky, in his role as chief motivator, was trying by all means to attract the sympathy of the West, which had turned its eyes towards the conflict in the Middle East. East.

This is a real misstep for a military leader who is, after all, serving a democratically elected civilian leader.

Thanking him on Thursday, President Zelensky reminded him that he is the supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces. And that this ultimate commander, even if he can face criticism behind closed doors, cannot accept such dissent in the public square.

Even less so at a time when Ukraine has the wind in its face rather than at its back. Because Russia has regained its strength, but also because Western support is increasingly difficult to obtain. This is evidenced by the long talks within the European Union to grant increased aid to Ukraine this week as well as the heated debates in the American Congress.

Of course, many will see Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision as an attempt to put to rest a military hero who overshadowed him and who could potentially become his political adversary. In the short term, the departure of the iron general could also have an impact on both the morale of the troops and the military performance of the country.

However, we will also remember from this episode that there cannot be two pairs of hands on the rudder in the middle of a storm.


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