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Top Ukrainian general ‘refused to step down’ as Zelensky rift deepens

Top Ukrainian general ‘refused to step down’ as Zelensky rift deepens

Ukraine’s most senior military commander reportedly refused to step down after being asked to do so by president Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday.

Zelensky has denied claims he moved to dismiss Valerii Zaluzhny as tensions between the two appear to reach their boiling point after months of simmering.

On Monday, reports started emerging in Ukrainian news outlets, including Ukrainska Pravda, Ukrinform and The Kyiv Independent, as well as several leading Telegram channels, that the army chief was summoned by Zelensky.

Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny spoke with Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer on Tuesday night (AP)
Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny spoke with Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer on Tuesday night (AP)

The Financial Times cited four sources familiar with the situation claiming that the president offered the popular general a new role as a defence adviser but he refused.

They said that two of the sources claimed it was made clear that Zaluzhny would be removed from his current position even if he refused the new role.

Oleksii Goncharenko, a Ukrainian opposition MP and ally of the general, also told the Guardian that he understood that “yesterday the president asked Zaluzhnyi to resign but he declined to do so”.

In November, Zelensky had rebuked the commander for suggesting the vast frontline with Russian troops was at stalemate, while last month Zaluzhny expressed frustration with the performance of military draft offices, in remarks suggesting they should mobilise more troops for the war against Russia.

Asked if the reports of Mr Zaluzhny’s sacking were true, Mr Zelensky’s spokesperson Sergii Nykyforov said: “Definitely not. The president has not dismissed the commander-in-chief.”

The Ukrainian defence ministry took to Telegram and said: “Dear journalists, we immediately answer everyone: No, this is not true”, without giving any further context.

General Zaluzhny has not issued a comment on the reports of his dismissal. The Ukrainian president also did not address the speculation further in his nightly video address on Monday.

The top military official has been Ukraine’s commander-in-chief since July 2021 and is a popular figure in the country, enjoying strong support among both rank-and-file Ukrainian soldiers and the public.

“Zaluzhny has his reputation as an iron general... the embodiment of the Ukrainian armed forces that saved this country against an enemy as fearsome as Russia. Zaluzhny personally has the support of 88 per cent of Ukrainians. 97 per cent of Ukrainians trust the armed forces under his command,” said Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko on X.

Local news reports in early December said Mr Zelensky was “bypassing” his top commander in communication with some military commanders.

The difference of opinions between the two became public in November after General Zaluzhny, in an interview with The Economist, said Ukraine and Russia had reached a stalemate in the war, one that could only be cracked with a “massive technological leap”.

Mr Zelensky was quick to reject the suggestion of a “stalemate” and contradicted the remarks on the battlefield situation by his top commander.

In an interview in December, the Ukrainian president said he shared a “working relationship” with his top general. He also signalled he was not happy with the leadership of Ukraine’s armed forces.

“I am waiting for very concrete things on the battlefield, I await their decisions. The strategy is clear; I want to see the details. I think that’s fair,” he said.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) thinktank, which monitors the war in Ukraine, said Russian sources have “seized” on Mr Zaluzhnyi’s reported dismissal or resignation, with one veteran Russian propagandist describing the reports as “chaos” and “useful to [Russia]”.