Ukraine's Zelenskyy replaces army chief in battlefield shake-up

General Valeriy Zaluzhny removed from post after speculation of rift within the military leadership

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he wanted General Valeriy Zaluzhny (right) to remain part of Ukraine's efforts to see off Russian forces. AFP
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced that he has replaced army chief General Valeriy Zaluzhny, saying the country's military leadership needed to be “renewed” in the war against Russia.

The move comes following days of speculation over the position of Ukraine's top general, who is seen by many as a national hero for overseeing the war effort since February 2022.

“As of today, a new management team takes over the leadership of the armed forces of Ukraine,” Mr Zelenskyy said in a statement on social media.

The Ukrainian army required immediate changes with a new approach to mobilisation and recruiting, he added.

The two men had discussed new leadership in the armed forces and that “the time for such a renewal is now”.

Mr Zelenskyy added he wanted Gen Zaluzhny to remain part of the country's efforts to beat back Russian forces.

In his own statement, Mr Zaluzhny said he had had an “important and serious conversation” with Mr Zelenskyy and that a decision had been made to change battlefield tactics and strategy.

“The tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024. Therefore, everyone must change and adapt to new realities as well. To win together too,” his statement said.

The two statements were published within moments of one another, suggesting that the two most prominent wartime figures in Ukraine had co-ordinated closely to put on a display of unity.

Сol Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, has been selected to lead Ukraine's army.

Mr Syrskyi, 58, has since 2013 been involved in the Ukrainian army’s effort to adopt Nato standards.

Mr Zelenskyy called on his new military leadership to devise a strategy to see off Russian forces.

Ukrainian forces proved they could regain control of the sky but failed to reach their goals on the ground in 2023.

“The year 2024 can be successful for Ukraine only if we make effective changes in the basis of our defence, which is the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Mr Zelenskyy said.

The US State Department said the move to replace Zaluzhnyi was a "sovereign decision".

The Pentagon said Washington "will work effectively with Gen Syrskyi, we already have".

The announcement came as Russia and Ukraine exchanged 100 prisoners of war from each side, the Russian Ministry of Defence said on Thursday.

The ministry said the United Arab Emirates provided “humanitarian mediation” to bring about the exchange.

“On 8 February, as a result of negotiations, 100 Russian servicemen who were in mortal danger in captivity were returned from territory controlled by the Kyiv regime,” the defence ministry said.

Dubbed the “Iron General” by Ukrainian media, Gen Zaluzhny came to symbolise the country's resistance against Russia and enjoyed sky-high public approval ratings.

While he had avoided the political spotlight, he is credited with spearheading some of Ukraine's most successful military campaigns, including the liberation of Kherson city in November 2022.

But his public comments proved a source of constant consternation for Mr Zelenskyy, already struggling to maintain unity over the issue of mobilisation.

In November 2023, Gen Zaluzhny said the conflict with Russia was at a “stalemate” and there would “most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough”.

Then, in an opinion piece for CNN exactly three months later, the 50-year-old said the army was bogged down by “regulatory framework” and called for urgent modernisation.

Gen Zaluzhny said Ukraine would not be able to boost its army's manpower unless lawmakers took “unpopular” measures to mobilise more men.

But calls to mobilise half a million more people to swap out exhausted long-serving soldiers was a highly divisive issue in a nation drained by fighting.

Updated: February 08, 2024, 11:24 PM