Zelensky Is Reportedly Planning a Big Army Leadership Shakeup
What it’s like when a top general is dismissed.
NO ONE IS WINNING IN UKRAINE, and signs of strain are starting to show on both sides. In Russia, as Cathy Young details, the surprising popularity of anti-war presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin may be attributable to large-scale public disapproval of the war that, under Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian regime, has no other outlet. Ukraine, of course, is a more open, free, and democratic country, so it’s even easier to see the signs of stress, fatigue, and frustration.
The overhyped Ukrainian counteroffensive of last year made important gains, but not the breakthroughs that many armchair strategists predicted. Moreover, the slowness of the delivery of advanced weapons from the United States and Europe has also blunted Ukrainian momentum.
The lack of significant battlefield progress caused a widely reported blame game between the Pentagon and Ukraine. American planners lamented the absence of a frontal assault on Russian forces. At the same time, the Ukrainians correctly complained that their American advisers lacked recent conventional war experience. (In fact, the last time the Americans fought a conventional enemy without air superiority, as the Ukrainians are trying to do now, was in North Africa in 1942.) Some American brass may also have believed, repeating a mistake seen most recently in Afghanistan, that they could transform the Ukrainian Armed Forces into a Western-style military overnight.
Now there are reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is set to relieve (or has already relieved) Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, from command. There are a host of possible reasons for such a move. Zaluzhny reportedly ruffled a lot of feathers in the presidential administration when he described the war as a “stalemate” to the Economist, while also admitting that his strategy to bleed the Russians was ill-advised. There have also been suggestions that Zelensky and Zaluzhny have disagreed on the question of mobilization, with Zaluzhny believing mass mobilization is necessary to replenish Ukrainian forces and Zelensky disagreeing because of the politics and the cost.
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Zelensky may also view Zaluzhny as a political rival. It’s not hard to see why: According to one poll, the Ukrainian public trusts Zaluzhny more than Zelensky.1 More importantly, the lack of substantial battlefield progress—which is imperative for continued Western support—could be either the main impetus or the most convenient excuse for Zaluzhny’s dismissal. And to the extent that Zaluzhny is a popular figure, it is fair to wonder what effect his removal will have on Ukrainian support for Zelensky and the war effort.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS LOOK LIKE from the point of view of Ukrainian troops? And how should Americans monitoring this story think about it?
I’ve experienced the removal of commanders firsthand, and without knowing why a general is canned, it’s hard to tell if it’s a prudent move. In 2006, my unit was involved in Gen. George Casey’s last gasp, Operation Together Forward II. It failed spectacularly, and as such failures do, it also sapped morale among basically everyone involved. The feeling of futility was apparent in nearly every one of my troops.
It was the lack of tangible battlefield progress that caused President George W. Bush to order a shakeup. Bob Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus replaced Casey.
Petraeus’s “surge” helped give Iraqi Security Forces time and space to reconstitute themselves and provide a semblance of security. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies hindered this stability, which I witnessed firsthand in Diyala Province, there was a moment of relative calm for a few years—before ISIS destroyed it.
Zaluzhny is widely considered a respected, competent, and experienced officer, but not every officer is right for every mission. Zelensky’s removal of Zaluzhny could, like Petraeus in Iraq, herald a new approach that is ultimately successful in achieving Ukraine’s war aims.
Or it could be a harbinger of instability.
As a front-row observer of the collapse of the Afghan government, I saw the ill effects of constant battlefield changes. President Ashraf Ghani and his national security adviser, Hamidullah Mohib, spent the year before the fall of Kabul constantly rotating battlefield commanders. Toward the end of my deployment, there were so many new commanders that I couldn’t keep track. They all had visions of grandeur, similar to some of Zaluzhny’s proposed reforms.
Ghani and Mohib were in a death struggle with Minister of Defense Asadullah Khalid and his chief of the general staff, Yasin Zia, over a coherent strategy. It was maddening to watch their feud play out while the Taliban made progress toward provincial capitals.
Their deathmatch underscored one of the Afghan government’s most significant weaknesses: its disunity. In meeting after meeting with senior Afghan officials, I pressed them to put aside their petty differences and unite. Instead, much to my chagrin, Afghan political parties feuded in the open, further worsening the government’s reputation in Washington.
Ukraine’s internal squabbles do not match Afghanistan’s—not even close. And whatever divisions there may be among the senior leadership, Ukrainian society remains basically united, if traumatized.
Zelensky also has a well-earned reputation for being willing to fire incompetent commanders. In November, Zelensky removed his special forces commander, the second major shakeup inside Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Zelensky has fired numerous other commanders throughout the campaign. President Lincoln did the same thing during the Civil War until he finally found, in Ulysses Grant, a general with the ability, temperament, and acumen to prosecute the war the way it needed to be prosecuted.
Of course, sometimes changes in personnel bring no change at all. For all of Gen. William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s many sins in Vietnam, their replacements—General Creighton Abrams for Westmoreland and three subsequent secretaries of defense for McNamara—fared no better.
(The required word of caution: Historical analogies should be trusted only up to a point. Iraq is not Afghanistan, and they’re not even close to Ukraine or Vietnam.)
Whether Zaluzhny’s removal is the sign of a welcome change, a harbinger of catastrophe, or much ado about nothing—if it even happens at all—it will almost certainly result in cries of a lost war from the usual suspects. Pay them no attention. It’s too soon to know what Zelensky’s reported decision means—except that the future of Western support, and therefore the future of Ukraine, may hang in the balance.
Not that polling in wartime Ukraine is all that reliable an indicator of public opinion.