What It Will Mean If Ukraine’s Top Military Man Is Fired
State of the Union: It depends who the embattled President Zelensky names to replace him.
Rumors have been swirling that Valery Zaluzhny, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, will be dismissed by President Volodymyr Zelensky. Sources told the press on Monday that Zaluzhny had been fired, but the Defense Ministry and the president’s office issued statements saying he hadn’t. Now CNN says two sources confirm that Zaluzhny’s firing will take place within days.
The earlier rumors came primarily from Zaluzhny’s allies, which suggests that the premature announcement was a tactical ploy to get Zelensky to back off. One ally said Zelensky had to “consult foreign partners” before making a final decision. Perhaps he hoped to forestall Zaluzhny’s firing by making Zelensky afraid it would look like he did it at a foreign power’s request. (Victoria Nuland did visit Kiev on Wednesday.) It was worth a try, but it seems these gambits have not worked.
Whether Zaluzhny’s firing is a good or bad development will depend on who is named as his replacement. One candidate is Kyrylo Budanov, director of the Defense Main Intelligence Unit. This would be a very bad development.
Budanov’s greatest contribution to the war so far has been his aggressive, showy attacks on targets within Russia, including drone strikes on energy infrastructure and targeted assassinations of so-called “Russian propagandists,” such as novelist Zakhar Prilepin and commentator Daria Dugina. When asked about the assassinations last summer, Budanov boasted, “We’ve already successfully targeted quite a few people.”
Budanov revels in his reputation for non-traditional attacks, according to journalist Simon Shuster, who also says Budanov’s “confidence verge[s] on the messianic.” If this is who Zelensky wants in charge, it could signal Ukraine’s intention to lash out against Russia as its battlefield fortunes continue to wane.
Zaluzhny was promoted over the heads of several more senior commanders shortly before the Russian invasion, because Zelensky liked him and the two men had a good rapport. More recently, the relationship was strained by differences in military judgment, with Zaluzhny showing greater willingness than Zelensky to admit the failure of the counteroffensive and the likelihood of a stalemate.
Another source of tension was Zaluzhny’s growing popularity among rank-and-file soldiers and the Ukrainian public. For several months last year, the office of the president kept Zaluzhny away from the media in order to reduce his public profile.
“The young people are for Zaluzhny. The best and brightest are for him,” says one Ukrainian quoted by Shuster. “People out there keep asking me: Are you with the president or with Zaluzhny? It’s one or the other.” Zaluzhny could challenge Zelensky for political power in a future election.
This personnel change is unlikely to change the outcome of the war. Budanov’s signature risky attacks have mostly been ineffective from a military standpoint, serving as morale boosters but not at actually degrading the enemy’s capabilities. Nevertheless, his promotion would be a victory for those who would prolong this war and a setback for those seeking peace.
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