In a critical juncture for Ukraine, the European Union overcomes Hungarian obstacles to release €50 billion in aid. Now, the spotlight shifts to US Republicans and President Zelenskiy in Kyiv. Amid reports of a potential top general’s dismissal, caution is urged. While leadership changes are not uncommon, the focus should be on bolstering Ukraine’s defences with troops and resources. Zelenskiy’s challenge lies in navigating internal politics and securing aid, not replacing a respected commander. The urgency is clear as Zaluzhnyi’s forces face dwindling resources in the ongoing conflict.
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By Marc Champion
The European Union has finally overcome Hungarian blackmail to release €50 billion ($54.1 billion) of aid for Ukraine, and that’s great news. Next up to prioritize a vital security matter over venal domestic politics should be Republicans in the US Congress, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv.
Reports abound that the Ukrainian leader may yet fire his top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, after backing off an attempt earlier this week. This is the officer who oversaw the defense of Kyiv, when the Pentagon thought it would fall in 72 hours; who sucked Russian forces deep into Ukraine and used his outgunned troops to attack its supply lines; who wore down the best soldiers Moscow could deploy around Kherson in the south, all the while planning a wildly successful surprise attack in the north. If Zelenskiy does dismiss Zaluzhnyi, let’s hope he has a really good reason.
It isn’t unheard of for commanders in chief to change their generals mid-war. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin replaced his commanders in Ukraine like they were neckties during the first year of the not-a-war-but-a-special-military-operation he launched on Feb. 24, 2022. US President Harry S. Truman famously fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War over insubordination that may have led to China entering the conflict, at significant cost to US and Korean lives. It’s a long list.
Yet wars aren’t linear, and the greatest of generals can suffer failures, as Zaluzhnyi did in his counteroffensive last summer. That’s especially true if they aren’t given the means to overrun entrenched land defenses in a combined arms operation — considered among the most difficult, if not the most difficult, of tasks that a military can face.
Multiple defense analysts warned before Zaluzhnyi launched the counteroffensive that unless the Russians weren’t manning the trenches they had spent all winter digging, or ran out of mobile reserves to plug holes, this would be a near-impossible task that even the US, just for example, wouldn’t attempt without air superiority. The Russians defended well, Ukraine’s small air force couldn’t overfly the battlefield and Zaluzhnyi couldn’t pull off a breakthrough for the history books.
Almost two years into the war, politics as usual is returning to Ukraine and in many of the democracies that support it. Zelenskiy’s rivals accuse him of wanting Zaluzhnyi gone out of political jealousy, which is possible. Zelenskiy’s popularity is, inevitably, falling from the extraordinary highs it reached in the first year of Russia’s invasion. Even ardent opponents declined to criticize him, up to last August, before the counteroffensive ran out of steam. They acknowledged that without his success in securing international support, the country would have been lost. But that pipeline of cash and weapons has now become blocked, snarled by internal US and European power struggles. The knives are out for Zelenskiy in Kyiv, while Zaluzhnyi has become the most revered figure in Ukraine.
There are, to be frank, a lot of known and unknown unknowns here, to borrow from former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s aphorism. Yet Zelenskiy should think long and hard about the potential costs of replacing a commander so respected by his troops, because if this is about envy, only Moscow would have cause to celebrate.
This is the most perilous period of the war for Ukraine since the early months of Putin’s invasion. Zaluzhnyi’s forces are running out of the artillery shells needed to hold back a reinforced enemy across a front line as long as 1500 kilometers (932 miles). The air defenses protecting its cities from Russian missiles and drones are low on ammunition, too. The warehouses of weaponry that Ukraine’s allies used to supply Ukraine are emptying, and their manufacturers haven’t been ramping up production anywhere close to the speed Russia has.
If, as some reports suggest, Zelenskiy believes he can revitalize Ukraine’s defenses and allies’ faith by refreshing the military’s top command, he is very likely mistaken. What Ukraine needs is more troops, to replace the large number of dead and wounded, and more ammunition and weapons for them to fight with. There is an extremely limited amount that a new command structure could achieve with the tools currently available. By contrast, Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal would damage already fraying morale at the front.
As Ukraine’s civilian commander in chief, Zelenskiy does and should have the discretion to fire his generals. The two men also have an important public-policy difference over whether to conscript another 500,000 troops, a move that would be unpopular for the man ordering it, namely Zelenskiy. On Thursday night, Zaluzhnyi published what looked to be a valedictory essay on CNN’s website, in which he said the war’s outcome depends on Ukraine’s ability to retrain, innovate and mass produce drones and other new battlefield technologies, because it can’t compete with Russia’s resources in the current style of positional warfare. He criticized the inability of state institutions to raise new manpower and break down the domestic defense industry monopolies that need to step up now that aid from allies has become less certain.
Zaluzhnyi, sadly, is right. Unless Zelenskiy knows something big that the rest of the world doesn’t, he should put his frustrations aside and repair the relationship.
It is to the president’s credit that he developed a division of labor with his generals, under which he rallied the international backing required to arm them, and they did the fighting. He should stick to that. The problem Zelenskiy should focus on solving now isn’t sacking Zaluzhnyi, but lobbying Europe to boost its arms-production capacity and MAGA Republican legislators in Washington to release the $60 billion of desperately needed aid for Ukraine that they are holding hostage on behalf of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
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