President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday removed his top general as part of a sweeping overhaul of his military command, the most significant shake-up in Ukrainian leadership since Russia invaded almost two years ago.
The dismissal ended weeks of speculation about the fate of the commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, whose relationship with Mr. Zelensky had deteriorated as Ukraine failed to make a breakthrough in its counteroffensive last summer and fall. Mr. Zelensky was prepared to fire the general 10 days ago before temporarily backing off, Ukrainian officials have said.
The upheaval comes at a difficult moment for Ukraine in the war, amid intensified Russian attacks, partisan wrangling in the United States over providing aid to the government in Kyiv and the tensions between Ukraine’s civilian and military leadership.
General Zaluzhny will be replaced by Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the head of Ukraine’s ground forces, the president said.
While praising General Zaluzhny, who has led the nation’s military since Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago, Mr. Zelensky said “urgent changes” were needed to ensure victory.
“Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said in an evening address to the nation, adding the he had met with General Zaluzhny and thanked him for his service.
The decision to remove the senior military leadership in the midst of an enemy offensive poses risks, including a disruption to operational planning, and Ukraine does not have a deep bench of senior commanders to draw on for general staff posts. In announcing the shake-up, Mr. Zelensky named five generals and two colonels he intends to promote.
Mr. Zelensky said a new command team must begin by laying out “a detailed action plan for the year ahead.”
However, any plan will need to account for the uncertainty around the pace and quantity of Western weapons and the challenges in recruiting news soldiers to the fight.
While there is a new mobilization plan being debated in the Parliament, critics of Mr. Zelensky say he has not effectively communicated to the public why more soldiers are desperately needed and has shied away from making difficult and possibly politically unpopular decisions regarding recruitment.
General Zaluzhny, 50, urged the nation to stay united in its fight for survival. “We survived together,” he said in a statement. Everyone, he said, must continue to adapt “to the new realities” of the war, and, only then, could they “win together.”
His replacement, General Syrsky, will face a formidable task assuming command over a military struggling to recruit soldiers and increasingly outgunned by a well-armed adversary. And he would be taking a job vacated by a general well-regarded in the army and society.
General Syrsky, who like many Ukrainian commanders was trained in the Soviet military system, did not offer an immediate comment on his new role after spending the day on the eastern front meeting with commanders on the ground, where fighting is raging.
He said they were working to solve “problematic issues that are critically important for the stability of defense” and would redistribute forces and resources as needed.
Senior Biden administration officials said the United States would respect President Zelensky’s decision to change Ukraine’s top wartime commander.
“President Zelensky is the commander in chief of his armed forces. He gets to decide who his leadership is going to be in the military,” said John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “That’s what civilian control is all about. We know that and we’ll work with whoever he has in charge of his military.”
But privately U.S. officials expressed concern over how deep the changes would go. A wholesale change at the top, they said, could have a damaging effect on the battlefield.
Opposition figures in Kyiv have said Mr. Zelensky’s desire to remove General Zaluzhny was motivated by political factors. Opinion polls had consistently ranked the president and general as the most trusted figures in Ukraine during the war. Through the fall, Mr. Zelensky’s ratings had fallen, while General Zaluzhny had retained consistently high levels of support.
General Zaluzhny’s high standing with the Ukrainian public led to speculation that he could be a prospective challenger to Mr. Zelensky in future elections, prompting some in the country to regard them as political rivals.
Mr. Zelensky sought to deflect that criticism on Thursday, framing his decision as part of a sweeping overhaul of a system in need of rethinking and not a personal dispute. “This is not about surnames,” he said. “And certainly not about politics. This is about the system of our army, about management in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and about attracting the experience of battlefield commanders of this war.”
Gen. Zaluzhny led Ukraine’s war effort from the initial, successful defense against Russia’s attack through the past year of bloody fighting, in which Russia has gained the momentum along the 600-mile front in the East. Ukrainian soldiers, their ranks depleted and lacking ammunition, once again find themselves outmanned and outgunned.
Rumors began circulating online in Ukraine last week that General Zaluzhny had been dismissed, prompting the president’s office to issue a denial. A Ukrainian member of Parliament said the two men met on Jan. 29, but the fate of the country’s top military commander was not decided.
Two Ukrainian officials said Mr. Zelensky’s government had been planning on dismissing the general all along, and only backed off briefly after the news was leaked and generated backlash from some Ukrainian political leaders and soldiers.
Friction between the president and general had simmered since early in the war in a rivalry mostly hidden from public view amid military successes. The schism deepened last fall, when General Zaluzhny published an essay declaring the fighting a deadlock, contradicting Mr. Zelensky’s continual, hopeful assertions of progress.
That breach followed a Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by billions of dollars in Western weapons donations that failed to achieve a breakthrough, despite costing thousands of Ukrainian casualties.
Mr. Zaluzhny’s dismissal, however, is not a clean break from the failed offensive. The commander Mr. Zelensky chose as a replacement, General Syrsky, had led the one element of that offensive that drew deep criticism from United States officials: a push to recapture the eastern city of Bakhmut last summer. The United States had urged Ukraine to focus all forces on a single thrust to break Russian lines in the south.
Ukrainian forces have in recent weeks been on the defensive as Russia launches fierce assaults along the front line. Kyiv did receive a boost to its war effort last week when the European Union approved a $54 billion aid package that will help avert a near-term Ukrainian financial crisis.
But lawmakers in Washington this week have struggled to forge an agreement that would provide another $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, assistance that Ukrainian officials and military analysts deem as critical to Kyiv’s war effort.
Republicans in the Senate blocked a measure on Wednesday that would have provided the funding; on Thursday an alternate bill reached the Senate floor after a crucial vote, though significant hurdles remained.
Ben Hodges, a retired general who commanded the U.S. Army Europe, said that it is always the prerogative of the civilian leadership in a democracy to change commanders when deemed necessary.
“I think it was unfair that it took so long to get to this point,” he said. “Whatever the circumstances are, it should have happened immediately and get the new guy in place.”
Now that it has happened, he said, it is natural that the new commander would bring in his own staff and move to make changes he thinks are needed.
General Zaluzhny was educated in a Soviet cadet school in Odesa but served most of his career in the Ukrainian Army after independence. Mr. Zelensky appointed him commander of the military’s general staff in 2021, before Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Military analysts have credited the general with preparing the army in the weeks and days before the attack by flying jets to reserve airfields and moving troops from barracks that were subsequently bombed.
Mr. Zelensky’s frustration with his top general burst into the public eye in early November, after General Zaluzhny published his essay calling the war a “stalemate.” The Ukrainian president suggested the comment was helpful to the Russians, a striking rebuke.
Around the same time, the president’s office replaced one of General Zaluzhny’s deputies, the head of special operations forces, without providing any explanation. It also dismissed the head of Ukraine’s medical forces.
Reporting was contributed by Constant Méheut, Marc Santora, Maria Varenikova, Anastasia Kuznietsova and Nataliia Novosolova from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.