Personality clashes blamed for conflict between president and popular commander Valerii Zaluzhnyi
Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked his most senior military commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, to step down on Monday but the popular general refused, triggering speculation that he will be dismissed instead.
Tensions between the two have been simmering for weeks amid the failure of Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive but the suggestion that Zaluzhnyi could be forced out nevertheless came as a shock to many.
Oleksii Goncharenko, a Ukrainian opposition MP and ally of the general, told the Guardian that he understood that “yesterday the president asked Zaluzhnyi to resign but he declined to do so”.
He blamed personality clashes for the conflict. “Personally I think this is a bad idea. There are not fundamental issues between them but Zelenskiy’s office has been concerned that Zaluzhnyi has been making political not military statements,” Goncharenko said.
Expectations that Zaluzhnyi could be forced out imminently surfaced on social media on Monday afternoon. A couple of hours later, the defence ministry responded curtly: “Dear journalists, we immediately answer everyone: No, this is not true,” assuming that everybody reading understood what was being referred to.
It is not clear that the matter will end there. Goncharenko said Zelenskiy could dismiss Zaluzhnyi and replace him – a process that requires the support of the defence minister – after assessing the public and international reaction.
The most likely replacement would be Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, responsible for covert operations against Moscow. Budanov was touted earlier this year as a replacement for Oleksii Reznikov as defence minister, in another protracted dismissal saga that began with similar bouts of speculation.
It is not clear what an alternative military strategy would look like given Russia’s entrenched frontline positions, while Ukraine’s most urgent crisis is not the battlefield but persuading Congress to approve a $61bn military aid package that would secure a year or more’s weapons supply from the US.
Democrats on Tuesday accused Republicans of being on the brink of deliberately collapsing a deal linking aid to Ukraine to a tightening of immigration policy at the US’s southern border in order to help Donald Trump’s election campaign.
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