In the photograph they appear smiling and shaking hands. The corpulent figure of Valeri Zaluzhni imposes itself on the smaller stature of Volodymyr Zelenskyj, the general seems more relaxed, he even allows himself to make his now characteristic symbol of victory with two fingers. The soldier and the president showcased unity last Thursday, the day the rift between them occurred. Zelensky dismissed him as commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces after two years of disagreements. The final chapter of their relationship aimed to maintain the country’s cohesion between the political and military leadership. But the truth is that major differences have existed between them since the invasion began in February 2022.
I met General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
I thanked him for the two years he spent defending Ukraine.
We discussed the renewal requested by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
We also discussed who could be part of the renewed leadership of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
It’s time for such a renewal… pic.twitter.com/tMnUEZ3BCX
— Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 8, 2024
EL PAÍS has reconstructed the chronology of the events that separated the president and the general until the breakup. The president justified that the war has entered a new phase of difficulty in which it is necessary “not to lose hope in victory”. Zelensky saw Zaluzhni as an equal, both are men gifted in communication, public relations and human contact. That is why he chose him, after assuming the presidency in 2019, to lead the army and its transformation into a modern armed forces according to NATO standards. But the president had political goals, and Zaluzhni had military goals. And their interests clashed from the start.
The Ukrainian military and US intelligence services were speculating about a Russian invasion as early as late 2021. Zelenskiy listened to reports warning him but until the day before the war began he publicly ruled out that Russia was going. to attack. The objective was not to cause panic among citizens and to ensure that the country did not suffer an exodus of millions of people, men and women. Journalist Simon Shuster just posted The Showman, the best book so far about how Zelensky’s team coped with the first year and a half of the invasion, but also Zaluzhni. In the book, the now former commander in chief explains that the US Chief of Staff, Mark Milley, pressured him to immediately build fortifications and defense trenches: Zaluzhni’s response was that he couldn’t because Zelenskyj didn’t had authorized, to avoid social instability.
Zaluzhni himself admitted that in the weeks before the start of the war, justifying to the presidency that he was carrying out military maneuvers, he had hidden from the president that he was actually positioning his units to defend Kiev from a probable siege. Time has proved him right.
Zaluzhni’s popularity among the population has skyrocketed since 2022 and, as a deputy close to the general and a high-ranking army friend of his, who preferred to preserve their identity, explained to this newspaper, the office of the president asked him to reduce Zaluzhni’s popularity among the population. interventions to a minimum. Zelensky feared a shift in the commander-in-chief’s policy, a possibility that Zaluzhni’s team admits Shuster has been studying. The sources consulted by this newspaper also agree on the fact that the general, in the early stages of the war, had heated discussions with the president and his right-hand man, Andrii Yermak, to convince them that he could resist the Russian troops, and that it would be possible It’s even possible to reject them.
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Counteroffensive in Kharkiv
The Showman reveals previously unknown information. The lightning counteroffensive that liberated Kharkiv province in September 2022 was a direct order from Zelensky to Oleksander Sirski, head of the army and, as of this week, Zaluzhni’s successor as commander in chief. Zaluzhni decided that before Kharkov it was essential to liberate the province of Kherson, in the south, to advance towards the Crimea. The president bypassed the army chief and was ignored in the celebrations for his success.
That same September, the Nordstream pipeline, the main source of natural gas from Russia to the European Union, was sabotaged. German and Danish justice are investigating the possible paternity, but US intelligence has speculated that it was the work of a Ukrainian military unit under Zaluzhni’s orders, according to reports. Washington Post. The Pentagon assures that Zelenskyj was not informed of this possible Ukrainian attack on the key infrastructure of the European Union.
Zelenskiy returned to take the military reins in February and March 2023. Bakhmut, the city of Donetsk on the Eastern Front, was already destined to fall to Russian hands after more than six months of siege. Zaluzhni was in favor of taking a step back a few weeks to reserve resources. Ukraine had concentrated much of its military power on defense while the Kremlin troops took advantage of this to fortify the front. Zelenskiy gave the order to resist until the last meter and it was Sirski who took command. American President Joe Biden visited Kiev in February 2023. According to political sources close to Zaluzhni consulted by EL PAÍS, Washington proposed a meeting between Biden and Zaluzhni, but Zelenskyj’s office rejected it, fearing its importance.
In November 2023, hostilities broke out between the two, with no possibility of return. In an interview with The sun, the president warned Zaluzhni of his possible political ambitions. “There are political forces that push the military to get involved in politics,” the president said, covertly referring to messages of support for the general coming from the main opposition party, European Solidarity. “If you wage war thinking that in the future you will engage in politics, then your words and actions at the front are those of a politician and not of a military man, and this is a serious mistake.” That November, Zelensky fired one of his most trusted men, Viktor Khorenko, commander of the army’s special forces, without informing Zaluzhni. Both Khorenko and Zaluzhni expressed their disappointment with the decision.
What struck Zelenskiy most that November was an essay and an interview that the then commander in chief gave in the magazine The Economist. Zaluzhni confirmed that the front is stagnant and that he does not expect his troops to advance until at least 2025, given the loss of armed support from the West. The president publicly discredited him, saying his view was wrong. Igor Zhovka, deputy head of the president’s office, accused Zaluzhny of encouraging Russia and dividing Ukraine’s allies.
From that moment on, Zaluzhni’s future seemed already sealed. Zaluzhni did not hold back and in December criticized the president for not doing what was necessary to strengthen the army with greater military mobilization of civilians. A month later, on January 29, Zelensky offered the general to resign, but he refused. Politicians and journalists close to him leaked the news, which caused an earthquake in public opinion. On February 1, Zaluzhni pushed for more criticism of the president, this time via CNN. In addition to insisting that great progress is no longer possible, Zaluzhni accused the government of failing to better manage the procurement and production of weapons, and underlined once again that the mobilization process was a failure because it was avoided. “unpopular measures”.
On February 8, Zaluzhni’s official replacement arrived with a message from him and the president calling for unity. This Friday both hugged each other during the presentation of the Hero of Ukraine medal to the general. It remains to be seen what Zaluzhni will do. He can accept Zelensky’s offer of another post in the army, but he can also follow the siren song of politics. Sooner or later there will be presidential and legislative elections, already postponed due to the war, and above all there will be future negotiations with Russia to put an end to the conflict.
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