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Valerii Zaluzhny and Volodymyr Zelensky visit an artillery training center on November 3, 2023

The other Z conflict Ukrainian journalists report a growing rivalry between President Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief General Zaluzhny

Source: Meduza
Valerii Zaluzhny and Volodymyr Zelensky visit an artillery training center on November 3, 2023
Valerii Zaluzhny and Volodymyr Zelensky visit an artillery training center on November 3, 2023
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

For more than a month, an apparently growing rift between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhny, has attracted international attention. Disappointment following Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive escalated into a public conflict in early November when Zaluzhny said in an interview with The Economist that the war with Russia has reached a stalemate that could drag on for years. Zelensky then rejected this assessment and repeated his refusal to negotiate any ceasefire deal with Moscow. The president later warned that it is a big mistake for soldiers to engage in politics. On December 3, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko publicly supported Zaluzhny’s comments about the war, adding to speculation about a schism between Ukraine’s leaders. Meanwhile, Mariana Bezuhla — a member of parliament from the pro-presidential Servant of the People party — has called for Zaluzhny’s ouster, complaining that Ukraine’s Armed Forces still haven’t presented lawmakers with next year’s battle plan.

On December 4, the news website Ukrainska Pravda (one of Ukraine’s largest media outlets and a newspaper that regularly publishes content criticizing the country’s leaders, even in wartime amid military censorship) released an article about the rivalry developing between the president and the commander-in-chief. Meduza summarizes the story’s main points below.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

Sources told Ukrainska Pravda that preliminary polling data show strong public support for General Valerii Zaluzhny, who enjoys a whopping 98-percent trust score (compared to Zelensky’s 93 percent). The president’s office has reportedly started treating Zaluzhny’s popularity as a political threat and dissuaded the general from creating a charitable foundation in his own name out of fear that it might become the basis for a future political party.

According to Ukrainska Pravda, however, pressuring Zaluzhny to shun the media (except for occasional comments to the foreign press) has only raised his popularity at home.

In early December, the partial results of a survey showed Zelensky beating Zaluzhny by a margin of almost 17 points in a hypothetical presidential election, though Ukrainska Pravda says it obtained the full sociological study and learned that the same polling shows the incumbent president and the commander-in-chief in a virtual dead heat (42 and 40 percent, respectively) in an imaginary second-round runoff election — all while Zaluzhny avoids direct political actions and any campaigning.

Don’t give me that juris-my-diction crap

Ukrainska Pravda attributes the conflict to each man encroaching on the other’s administrative territory: Zelensky has brought “elements of politics” to the army’s senior command, while Zaluzhny has “inadvertently become a prominent phenomenon” in Ukraine’s political reality, challenging the president’s “sphere of vital interests.”

This competition has led to bureaucratic clashes. For example, Zelensky has “effectively created parallel mechanisms for communicating with the commanders of various military branches,” meaning that Zaluzhny sometimes learns crucial information only from his subordinates. The president’s political agenda has also interfered with the commander-in-chief’s work elsewhere. For example, when the president fired regional enlistment commissioners en masse, Zaluzhny publicly noted that the decision resulted in the collapse of recruitment nationwide. Additionally, Zelensky fired several commanders who are considered to be “in Zaluzhny’s orbit.”

You went over my helmet?

Zaluzhny’s problems with the president apparently boiled over during a recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, when Ukraine’s commander-in-chief actually complained to the Pentagon chief about Zelensky’s administration. At the same meeting, Zaluzhny also reportedly shocked Secretary Austin by stating that Ukraine needs another $350–400 million in resources, including 17 million shells, to restore the country’s 1991 borders.

Ukrainska Pravda speculates that the only feasible candidate to replace Zaluzhny as commander-in-chief is Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s top general in the east. But the website’s sources say he doesn’t enjoy the same public visibility and still contends with his reputation as a general who doesn’t value the lives of his soldiers. According to Ukrainska Pravda, however, the main problem with replacing Zaluzhny is that it would immediately catapult him to “superstardom” and change the landscape of Ukrainian politics.

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