Zelenskyy's 'risky' battlefield gamble for Ukraine victory

Replacing Gen Valery Zaluzhny brings dangers, but President wants a commander willing to trade blood for territory

Gen Valery Zaluzhny, former commander-in-chief of the Ukraine's armed forces. His approach was reportedly too cautious for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. EPA
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Ukraine’s leader has taken a “significant risk” in sacking his popular commander with the front line wavering under Russian assaults, military analysts have told The National.

The sacking of Gen Valery Zaluzhny was inevitable given his disagreement with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on how to conduct the war.

But the President has committed himself to the objective of total victory by retaking all territory Russia has occupied. That will come at a very high human cost, something his general could not abide.

The crucial first task of the new commander-in-chief, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, will be to hold the front line and in particular prevent a Russian breakthrough in the eastern town of Avdiivka.

Moscow breach

There will be a heightened awareness in Moscow that penetrating Ukraine lines now could severely dent confidence in the new chief whose popularity is no match to his predecessor’s.

The expectation is that Russia will throw ever more troops and armour into Avdiivka, despite reportedly suffering up to 1,000 casualties a day.

That will present a major challenge for the highly professional Gen Syrskyi who has a reputation for aggressively engaging the enemy despite losses, although he is also said to rule by fear.

But in total war it is the relationship between the political leader and senior military staff that is crucial for a successful outcome.

The political will always comes first, and in Gen Syrskyi, Mr Zelenskyy has an officer unlikely to question his demand to bleed the army for territorial gain.

That was something Gen Zaluzhny was unwilling to do and that lay behind his decision to scale back last summer’s counter offensive as soon as the losses mounted in the grim realisation that Ukraine’s military did not have the air power or training to break Russia’s deep defences.

Soldier’s soldier

That decision to shepherd his troops accounts for the general’s immense popularity reflected in a poll last month that gave him an 87 per cent popularity rating among Ukrainians.

Time magazine also put him in the top 100 most influential people globally in 2022 for his skill in adapting to a fast-changing battlefield.

“Zaluzhny is a total legend among the blokes,” said a military source in Ukraine. “People love him because he’s always on the ground, so they’re very annoyed that he’s gone.”

It was reportedly Gen Zaluzhny’s reference to “stalemate” on the front line, in an interview with The Economist newspaper, that built disagreement, together with the President’s insistence that he recruit another 500,000 soldiers.

Changed generals

Changing a military chief mid-war is certainly not unprecedented.

During the American Civil War, three commanders of Union forces were replaced by President Abraham Lincoln, before he settled on Ulysses S Grant.

“Grant understood that this was a war of attrition,” said retired US Army general Ben Hodges, who served as commander of US forces in Europe. “Lincoln trusted that and protected Grant when the Union suffered huge casualties.”

There are many other examples throughout history, with President Barack Obama sacking his commander in Afghanistan in 2010, among the most recent. Yet it does not come without risk.

“Zelenskyy was after fresh leadership and the head of government has a perfect right to remove military chiefs as mutual confidence is an important factor,” said Brig Ben Barry, a Russian expert at the IISS think tank in London.

“But changing horses in midstream comes with significant risk, so let's hope the advantages of a new team outweigh the disadvantages.”

Gen Hodges said such a change “is not unusual at all”.

“You can look at almost every war and see that presidents and prime ministers have swapped-out commanders, until they get the guy that they are comfortable with who has their confidence.”

Decision made, Mr Zelenskyy will now undertake a “systemic renewal of the leadership” of the Ukrainian military, his office said, adding that he wanted to prevent frontline stagnation and find new technological solutions to break through Russian lines.

Not waiting

Some analysts have argued that Ukraine needed a year to restock its armoury and train up more combat brigades, along with getting the billions in military aid from America and Europe.

That would have delayed the counter-offensive until 2025, and Mr Zelenskyy knows that he cannot afford to wait that long.

A potential Donald Trump US presidency is looming, which will not play well for Ukraine, so Mr Zelenskyy needs victories on the battlefield to reassure the West that he’s the right horse to back.

Thus he has taken the risk, as many other leaders have done in previous wars, to change up the leadership to fulfil the political will.

More Ukrainian blood will be shed in that cause but Mr Zelenskyy’s instincts could prove right.

Updated: February 09, 2024, 1:54 PM