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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

ZELENSKYY'S CHOICE

Recent talk of a rift between Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the commander–in–chief of the armed forces, Valeryi Zaluzhnyy, was not mere scuttlebutt. It spilled into the open last week with reports claiming Zelenskyy was about to fire Zaluzhnyy; the subsequent brouhaha evidently caught the president by surprise and the commander–in–chief remains in his job as of this writing. But Zelenskyy acknowledged on Sunday that he wishes to replace Zaluzhnyy as part of a 'reset' to the wartime leadership.


The dispute between the pair came to wide attention a few months ago. Zaluzhnyy's essay and interview for The Economist, in which he referred to a 'stalemate' on the battlefield, reportedly riled Zelenskyy. (There has been a suggestion that 'stalemate' was not the best translation of Zaluzhnyy's original word in the interview, and I agree that a 'deadlock' has different implications if that is what he really meant.) The pair also disagreed over the commander's request for the mobilisation of up to half a million new soldiers.


Among other things, their growing dispute may have reflected nerves about flagging military aid from Ukraine's supporters. It is therefore slightly ironic that the most recent scrap comes as the EU finally reached agreement on its aid package to Ukraine.


In a cleft stick


Last Monday, social media was awash with claims that Zaluzhnyy had been called to a meeting with Zelenskyy and was about to be replaced. If those reports are correct, then Zaluzhnyy was invited to tender his resignation. Zaluzhnyy, whose popularity ratings are far higher than Zelenskyy's despite the failure of the 2023 counteroffensive, refused to step down voluntarily. Zelenskyy buckled. He may feel threatened by Zaluzhnyy's popularity, but dismissing a popular military leader could harm morale among the troops.


Zelenskyy's own popularity surged after Russia's invasion. It was not all smooth sailing in the couple of years after his 2019 election and, were it not for the country being in a state of martial law, a presidential election would have been held this spring at the end of his five–year term. His trust rating dropped to 62% in a December poll: that is still high, but far behind the 88% trust rating for Zaluzhnyy.


The Ukrainian president, aware of challenges in the war, may have wanted to look decisive – but he clearly failed in that by not seeing through his decision last week. He was always taking a risk. His critics, including those who think the country should have a presidential election despite the war, would have seized on it as an indication of an autocratic tendency. Instead, by backing down, those same critics can point to it as a sign of weakness.


Dragging out the replacement of Zaluzhnyy probably won't help Zelenskyy's image; a new commander overseeing successes on the battlefield certainly would. Zelenskyy says he has in mind 'something serious', including replacements throughout his cabinet, although in the first instance it is likely to be what happens militarily that people will judge his changes by. An obvious contender for the commander–in–chief role is the army chief, Oleksandr Syrsky. The Ukrainian media has also named defence intelligence director Kyrylo Budanov as a possible replacement.


Challenges mounting


As I write this, Russian forces are said to be close to taking the town of Avdiivka, which would help them to push Ukrainian defence forces away from Donestsk. The battle for control of Avdiivka has been ongoing since the beginning of Russia's largescale invasion, which shows how significant both sides consider it strategically. The Institute for the Study of War also reports Russian advances near Bakhmut and Mariinka.


A big problem – and I know I harp on about it – is the demographic one. Ukraine doesn't have a large enough population to sustain a prolonged war, and even before the war the age profile of the country was skewed to older generations. It gets worse. I note from a recent news report that the country currently has the lowest fertility rate in the world: before the war, a Ukrainian woman gave birth to an average of 1.16 children, already below the replacement rate, and now that has fallen to 0.7 children. (For comparison, the fertility rate in the United Kingdom was 1.61 in 2021 – also below the replacement level.) The death rate for Ukrainians, while not known, will make for uncomfortable reading. Other problems, such as munitions supply, are surmountable if Ukraine's allies get their act together.


With or without the continuation of external military aid, Zelenskyy's intention to change personnel at the top is a gamble. If the US reduces its support, certain American politicians will inevitably subtly blame Zelenskyy's reshuffling of personnel for any battlefield failures. Zelenskyy will have given the Americans a scapegoat. On the other hand, after a period of faltering support and deadlock in the war, outside actors could also take advantage of Ukrainian successes and some American politicians, locked in their bitter election campaigns, will seek to take credit.


Zaluzhnyy's card may be marked, but it is Zelenskyy who needs to play his cards carefully. He is right that he needs to reinvigorate things as fatigue sets in deeper. He will, in fact, have to gamble to regain the initiative in the war. And what will Zaluzhnyy be doing (and what will his influence on politics be) in the meantime? The timing of his latest essay on the war, published by CNN last Thursday, which set out his views on adapting Ukraine's military strategy, was certainly eye–catching.


None of this means that things are any easier for Russia's Vladimir Putin. As he gears up for an election in March that no one seriously expects to be either free or fair, soldiers' wives and mothers are protesting outside the Kremlin. Putin must be aware that ostensible support for the war among the Russian population is far from assured and could quickly collapse.



Thank you for reading! You can support my blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available to UK buyers here and US buyers here.

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