Rumors have been swirling for weeks, but on Thursday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made it official: the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s military forces, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, is being replaced.
The move comes two months after Zaluzhnyi gave an interview in which he said that the fight against Russia’s illegal invasion had entered a “static and attritional fighting” phase, and made a statement: “Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.” He followed this by saying: “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
The use of the term “stalemate” and the pessimistic report on the future of the counteroffensive reportedly caught Zelenskyy off guard. The Ukrainian president moved quickly to say, “I don’t think that this is a stalemate."
There are certainly more important reasons why Zelenskyy thought this move was necessary, but that moment certainly didn’t help Zaluzhnyi’s long-term prospects.
Zaluzhnyi's assessment may have been accurate, but Zelenskyy was likely concerned about how these statements could dampen support from Western partners. With U.S. assistance still hanging in the balance, Zelenskyy has good reason to worry about any suggestion that Ukraine can’t win—especially when that suggestion comes from the man in charge of winning.
The big summer counteroffensive followed Ukraine’s striking victories at Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson. With shipments of modern Western arms over the winter, including main battle tanks, and troops spending months training away from the front, expectations were huge. Zaluzhnyi had worked wonders the previous year. Now he had more men, better machines, and time to plan a massive assault. What couldn’t he do?
As The Washington Post reported in December, the U.S. wanted Ukraine to mass forces and drive into the Russian line at a single point, cutting through supply lines to reach the Sea of Azov. But Zaluzhnyi didn’t agree. Facing a long Russian front, the Ukrainian commander advocated for moving against three locations: two in the south, and one near Bakhmut.
Right from the start, Russian defenses along the southern line proved to be much more formidable than anyone expected. Not only did tanks and armored vehicles end up trying to pick their way through dense, extensive minefields, they were harried in their movements by both artillery and drones. Just four days into the offensive, Zaluzhnyi determined that a straightforward approach wasn’t going to work. He pulled back forces and began probing the Russian line, seeking less well-defended positions.
Months later, Ukraine has picked up barely a dozen kilometers at any of its points of attack. Meanwhile, Russia is closing in on the city of Avdiivka, which could be the first Ukrainian city to fall since Bakhmut.
But for all the headlines around the world claiming that Zaluzhnyi has been fired, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Gen. Mark Hertling, has a different perspective.
He points out that since the day of the invasion, Zaluzhnyi has been the commander of forces engaged in the “toughest fight we’ve seen in the 21st century.”
Zaluzhnyi entered this war without a fully modern army. He’s had to train troops, defend against a much larger and better-equipped opponent, and integrate the hundreds of new weapons systems and pieces of equipment provided by Western allies. For two years, Zaluzhnyi has commanded a 2,000-kilometer tactical front, developed strategy, and dealt with over 50 allied militaries that constantly provided advice (but not troops). In addition like every other general, he has seen tens of thousands of the men he sent out to fight return home in flag-draped caskets.
Hertling suggests that the real problem with Zaluzhnyi is that he’s simply exhausted.
Hertling rates Zaluzhnyi’s overall performance as “masterful.”
Now command of Ukrainian forces passes to Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who is less popular with the troops and is seen as an old-style Soviet commander with little concern about casualties. How the changeover affects both strategy and morale is still to be determined.