When Valerii Zaluzhnyi was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Force of Ukraine in July 2021, there was uncertainty on whether the crisis in the eastern Donbas region, where a civil war was raging between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv’s troops, would escalate into a full-blown war. U.S. intelligence had warned Kyiv that the Russians were planning an invasion. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-politician who was elected President of Ukraine in April 2019, was sceptical. But Gen. Zaluzhnyi was not ready to take a chance. “There was the smell of war in the air,” he recalled those days in an interview later. And his job was to prepare his troops, who lost Crimea in 2014 without even a fight, for the coming big war.
Seven months after Gen. Zaluzhnyi, who cut his teeth as a top commander in Donbas, took over as the Commander-in-Chief, President Vladimir Putin of Russia launched his ‘special military operation’. In the run-up to the war, many of its allies, including the U.S., thought that Ukraine’s troops would fold before the mighty Russians, and relocated their embassies from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, on the Polish border. But not Gen. Zaluzhnyi. “For me, the war started in 2014 (when Russia annexed Crimea). I did not run away then, I am not going to run away now,” he told the Americans in February 2022. Russia made some territorial gains in the initial days of the war, but the Ukrainian defence did not crumble as many had expected.
Russian troops were stopped in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. This allowed Ukraine’s Western partners to reassess their strategies and start sending supplies to Ukrainian troops to counter-attack Russia. Gen. Zaluzhnyi’s popularity rose. While Mr. Zelenskyy emerged as the face of Ukraine’s war abroad, Gen. Zaluzhnyi became a national hero. ‘The Iron General’, memes celebrated his popularity on social networks. ‘Ukraine could win this war,’ wrote pundits. The President “allows his Generals to run the show without direct interferences into military business”, a former Minister said, referring to the bonhomie between Mr. Zelenskyy and Gen. Zaluzhnyi. But none of these lasted long.
On February 8, weeks before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, Mr. Zelenskyy sacked Gen. Zaluzhnyi as the Commander-in-Chief at a time when the Ukrainian forces were struggling to defend the frontline that stretches from Kharkhiv in the northeast to Kherson in the south. The President had earlier asked the General to step down as part of an attempt to “reorganise” the armed forces, but the latter refused. Then came the dismissal. Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskiy is the new boss.
Born in 1973 into a military family in northern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, Valerii Zaluzhnyi grew up during the Brezhnev era. He wanted to be a comedian, the profession Mr. Zelenskyy came from, but ended up joining the forces, following in the footsteps of his family members. He studied at the Institute of Land Forces of the Odesa Military Academy and the National Defence Academy in Kyiv. When the Russians took Crimea in 2014, Zaluzhnyi was a 41-year-old officer, who, like many other Ukrainian soldiers, felt humiliated and helpless by the loss of the Black Sea Peninsula. He was sent to the east to command units that were fighting the separatists and the “little green men”, who were believed to have been dispatched by the Russians.
When Mr. Zelenskyy became President in 2019, the situation in the east had become worse. Parts of the Donbas region were now two self-proclaimed Republics. The Minsk II agreement required Kyiv to introduce structural and constitutional reforms to guarantee autonomy to the eastern Oblasts in return for peace. The Russian threat was real and looming.
Instead of implementing the Minsk agreements, Mr. Zelenskyy chose to deepen Ukraine’s cooperation with the West and strengthen its armed forces. He wanted young blood for the latter. In 2021, he zeroed in on Gen. Zaluzhnyi. “He is a fair professional and a smart person,” Andrii Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said about the selection of Gen. Zaluzhnyi. “I said this to the President. The final call was made by him.” And Gen. Zaluzhnyi’s job was to keep his troops ready. “Our task as the Armed Forces is not to wait for manna from heaven. We must prepare for this. And we do everything for this,” he said.
He reorganised the armed forces, strengthening the autonomy of mid-level officers so that battlefield decisions can be made quickly instead of waiting for orders from headquarters like the Soviet days. He conducted military exercises to keep the forces combat-ready. He deepened defence cooperation with the U.S., the U.K. and other NATO countries. For someone who has “read everything [Valery] Gerasimov ever wrote”, the enemy is not a pushover. “I learnt the science of war from Gerasimov,” he once said, referring to the Chief of the General Staff of Russia. And now, he was preparing to fight Gen. Gerasimov.
His tactics were initially effective. Russian forces were stopped in the early stage of the invasion. Later in 2022, the Ukrainians mobilised troops in the south, triggering speculations that they were planning a counter-attack in Kherson. Then, they launched the attack in Kharkiv, in the northeast, recapturing swathes of territory. Before the Russians recovered from this setback, Ukraine launched another attack in the south, forcing the enemy to retreat from Kherson city to the east bank of the Dnieper River. That is when Gen. Zaluzhnyi peaked. “Zaluzhnyi has emerged as the military mind his country needed,” General Mark Milley, the former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of the U.S., once said. “His leadership enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to adapt quickly with battlefield initiative against the Russians.” But the Russians also learnt from their battlefield experiences and adapted to the new realities.
By the time Ukraine launched the much-anticipated counteroffensive in June 2023, the Russians were in a stronger position. Mr. Putin had already mobilised some 3,00,000 troops and changed his commander. Russia’s military production had recovered from the early effects of the sanctions. They were ready to fight a long war, while Ukraine, which was almost entirely dependent on supplies from the West, wanted quick results.
The counteroffensive turned out to be counterproductive. Ukraine made no substantial territorial gains in months-long fighting, while they also suffered huge losses. In November 2023, Gen. Zaluzhnyi wrote an essay in The Economist, in which he said the war was entering “a new phase of static and attritional fighting, as in the First World War”, which “will benefit Russia”. He also asked Mr. Zelenskyy to mobilise 5,00,000 men for fighting. Reports started surfacing about the growing divide between the President and the Commander, which culminated in the latter’s sacking.
“We will fight until the last drop of blood,” Gen. Zaluzhnyi once said about the war. However, as the war is set to enter the third year, perhaps the most difficult phase for Ukraine with losses on the frontline, an enemy that is on the offensive and uncertainty about fresh aid from the U.S., the “Iron General” is no longer in the war.
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