President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Ukrainian troops along the frontlines of fighting with Russia on Sunday, on the southeastern front, according to Reuters. “It’s an honor to be here today. To support the warriors and award them. They face a difficult and critical mission to repel the enemy and defend Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said from the Zaporizhzhia region.
The timing of the rare battlefield visit is what is most interesting, given it comes at a moment the Ukrainian president and his commander of the armed forces, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhny, appear to be in an open conflict after Zaluzhny refused to step down.
Zaluzhny is considered to be very popular and commands great loyalty among the troops, so Zelensky could be trying to shore up morale and “test the waters” before continuing to pursue the top general’s ouster.
According to Reuters, “Two sources said on Friday that the Ukrainian government had informed the White House that it plans to fire the country’s top military commander overseeing the war against Russian occupation forces.”
Among other things Zelensky handed out medals to troops on the front lines in Zaporizhzhia. Likely the Zelensky administration fears potential mutiny if he forces Zaluzhny out of the top military post.
According to more from Reuters:
Known as “the Iron General,” Zaluzhnyi is extremely popular. His removal could hurt morale among Ukrainian troops battling to hold positions along more than 620 miles (1,000 kms) of frontlines against a vast Russian force armed with large munitions stockpiles.
Substantial rumors have persisted for days since last week, when The Economist first broke the story of Zelensky’s plans to fire Zaluzhny. Despite the denials of Ukrainian officials, the leaks keep coming, and it appears confirmed that Zaluzhny’s fate is at least up in the air as the government tries to find a path forward without unleashing division and possible rebellion.
Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, has underscored: “When there are speculations on such a sensitive topic, people want clarity.”
“And if there are major changes in the country’s military command, then they want official confirmation and an explanation of why,” he continued in comments to NBC. “Citizens clearly understand that the survival of the country and themselves depends on the relations between the highest civilian and military officials.”
In a new essay, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who is reportedly set to be fired by Zelensky, writes:
“We must acknowledge the significant advantage enjoyed by the enemy in mobilizing human resources and how that compares with the inability of state… pic.twitter.com/egHpuOsLmY
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) February 2, 2024
Part of the conflict stems from Zaluzhny’s willingness to criticize top decision-making when it comes to the war, whereas Zelensky and his top aides have only consistently sought to portray an optimistic as possible or rosy picture of how things are going. Zelensky has reportedly seen the general’s candid remarks as undermining the war effort and official policies. Zaluzhny also appears more open and realistic about the need for peace negotiations with Moscow.
Starting all the way back in November, Gen. Zaluzhny had been the first first top military official to paint a very negative picture of how Ukraine’s military was fairing on the battlefield. What’s more is the admission quickly caught the eye of other major publications, most notably The New York Times, which underscored at the time, “His comments marked the first time a top Ukrainian commander said the fighting had reached an impasse…”.