Approaching the second anniversary of the conflict, the question has become nagging in political-military circles in kyiv: will the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valery Zalouzhny, soon have to give up his place? Since January 29, rumors about his upcoming dismissal have multiplied in the Ukrainian press and on social networks, against a backdrop of growing disagreements with the Ukrainian presidency for months. Without giving official confirmation, Volodymyr Zelensky publicly hinted at upcoming changes.
February 4, on the Italian channel Rai, the Ukrainian president thus confirmed that he was thinking about “replacing a certain number of state leaders” and “not only in a single sector like the army”, before insisting on the importance of being “convinced of victory” and “not to give up”. As a way of responding to the column published three days earlier on CNN by the head of the Ukrainian armies, who called on Ukraine to prepare “for a reduction in military support” from its main allies, and to adapt its strategy accordingly.
No forehead break
If the replacement of this senior officer, in office since 2021, were to be confirmed, it would constitute the most significant reshuffle of the Ukrainian military apparatus since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. Enough to weaken Ukrainian defense ? “Even if the Russians are making progress around the town of Avdiivka, we should not expect that a change of army chief will lead to a break in the Ukrainian front,” says General (2S) Jérôme Pellistrandi, editor in chief of the National Defense Magazine. Currently the balance of power on the ground is based above all on the number of men, equipment, and ammunition available to the two armies.”
“The Ukrainian defense lines are firmly established, adds General Nicolas Richoux, former commander of the 7th armored brigade. On the other hand, this could have an impact in the longer term if it reflects a desire by President Zelensky to regain control of the conduct of military operations.” In a highly publicized essay published in The Economist in November, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces affirmed that the conflict was at an “impasse”, a term that Volodymyr Zelensky strongly contested a few days later.
The replacement of a military leader is in any case not uncommon in times of war. “It is even a relatively common practice: it occurred several times within the French armies during the First World War, recalls General Pellistrandi. Generalissimo Joffre was replaced in 1916 by General Nivelle, who then he himself was dismissed, in 1917, after the failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive.” Between 1914 and 1918, the French armies had no less than four generals in chief. On the British side, two, with the replacement, in 1915, of the commander of the expeditionary force John French by General Douglas Haig.
In the short term, the risk of replacing Valery Zalouzhny could be less military than political for the Ukrainian president. After almost two years of leading fierce resistance to Russian forces, “the iron general” (Zaluzhny’s nickname), has acquired a solid reputation among the Ukrainian population. According to a poll conducted in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS), his popularity rating reached 88%, compared to 62% for Volodymyr Zelensky. “This could contribute to politically weakening the Ukrainian president,” points out General Richoux. “Some could accuse him of trying to remove a potential rival who was beginning to overshadow him.”
At this stage, two contenders are considered as potential replacements: the commander of the ground troops, Oleksandr Syrsky, architect of the defense of Kiev at the start of the conflict, then of the dazzling counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region in 2022. But also the formidable head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Boudanov, unanimously praised for his high-level operations in Russian territory.
This probable game of musical chairs did not fail to be quickly exploited by Moscow. “One thing remains obvious: the Kiev regime has a lot of problems, things are not going well there,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declared on January 31, pointing to “growing contradictions” within the Ukrainian power. “This chaos is useful to us,” Margarita Simonian, the director of the RT television network, a tool of Russian propaganda, had mocked two days earlier. Since January 24, 2022, Russia itself has changed commander-in-chief in Ukraine twice. “Apart from destabilizing the military, it didn’t do much good,” slips General Richoux.