Confrontation between Ukraine's military and political leaders has reached its climax

Valery Zaluzhny, Volodymr Zelensky

On 8 February, the Ukrainian presidential office published a decree on the dismissal of Valeriy Zaluzhny from the post of commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and appointed Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi to his post. Rumors that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to dismiss Zaluzhny appeared as early as on 29 January, and since then the topic had not subsided in the Ukrainian and Foreign mass media.

Discussions around the confrontation between the military and politicians in Ukraine are still ongoing. The latest reports about the resignation of the former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, were attributed by Ukrainian publications to the failure of the summer counter-offensive and the military commander's political ambitions.

Indeed, the Ukrainian army's counteroffensive, which began last spring and centered all the hopes of the authorities and ordinary citizens of Ukraine for a quick and victorious end to the war, has not yielded tangible results. "Yes, there is a certain negative residue, taking into account what happened in 2023. Yes, there were certain tactical mistakes; the military and political leadership are talking about it" this is how the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak characterized the results of the actions of the AFU command.

Such statements only fueled the flywheel of confrontation between the military command and the office of the Ukrainian President. The two camps - politicians and the military - began to shift responsibility for the lack of successes on the battlefield onto each other.

The struggle between representatives of the military and political elite is as old as the world. Everywhere, not only in Ukraine, the military party puts war above politics, identifying it with armed struggle and claiming that defense is provided by the forces of the military department, and war is the task and business of just the army. Frederick II once stated this position very categorically: "The nation must not feel that the army is waging war". The civilian leadership, in its turn, believes that war originates in the sphere of politics, it is its product, and represents a way and form of its realization. In their opinion, war as the most radical way to achieve the goal is deployed in the interests of redistribution of international influence. This point of view is concentrated in the phrase of the great military theorist von Clausewitz: "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means".

However, there are also more down-to-earth reasons for the sharp disagreements between Ukrainian politicians and the military. The struggle for power has become the main stumbling block in the relations between the Ukrainian political leadership and the AFU generals. The fact is that in Ukraine today there are not so many strong ambitious leaders capable of rallying the public masses round them and radically changing the situation both inside the country and on the battlefield. Among them, in particular, are Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former AFU commander-in-chief Valeriy Zaluzhny, who have the greatest political weight, authority and charisma in the current realities.

Zelenskyy sees Zaluzhny as his direct rival, retired Bundeswehr colonel and military expert Wolfgang Richter said in an interview with the German NTV channel. According to him, the conflict between them initially arose because of differences in the assessment of the combat power of Ukrainian troops and their ability to retake the territories seized by Russia. After numerous failures during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Zaluzhny soberly assessed the military capabilities of the AFU and gave the order to move to position defense, despite the president's categorical demands to continue the offensive. Richter noted that it was Zaluzhny's political ambitions along with his willfulness that forced Zelenskyy to consider reshuffling the military leadership.

Meanwhile, Zaluzhny's resignation provides the scope for his full-scale integration into political life in Ukraine. Now, the former commander-in-chief will no longer be constrained by his loyalty to the military oath, and he will have a unique opportunity to try to rally all forces disloyal to Volodymyr Zelenskyy round him and use them to come to power in the country.

At the same time, not only military, but also political leaders are on the commander-in-chief's side. For instance, retired General of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Krivonos expressed the opinion that Zelenskyy was no longer able to cope with his duties and should leave his post. At the same time, he did not consider Zaluzhnyy's resignation necessary. Ukraine's ex-President Petro Poroshenko in turn said that "the main reason for the dismissal of the AFU commander-in-chief is emotions and jealousy, which cannot be guided by in times of war". Interestingly, in December 2023, Zaluzhny overtook Zelenskyy in the trust rating of Ukrainians (82 vs. 72), according to a survey by the Ukrainian sociological group "Rating". Obviously, the image of Ukraine's president as an "unbending fighter for freedom and democracy" has been significantly eroded, the population and the army are already tired of the protracted war, the victorious euphoria of repelling the Russian offensive in 2022 has already passed, and it has become increasingly difficult for Zelenskyy to confront new challenges such as the economic crisis, falling living standards of citizens and reduced assistance from NATO allies.

Such disappointing trends for the Ukrainian president, as well as the upcoming presidential election in the USA, make Volodymyr Zelenskyy nervous. In January, the Ukrainian leader already voiced his concerns about a possible compromise between Washington and Moscow and the subsequent termination of financial and military assistance to Kiev if the administration of the previous president, Donald Trump, comes to power in the United States.

However, it is not only Kiev that is nervous, but Washington does as well. US President Joe Biden does not have much time left to explain to voters what US taxpayers' money has been spent on in Ukraine. Among other things, inspectors from the US Department of Defense, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development have arrived in Kiev to audit the aid given to the country. Recently, members of the US Congress publicly criticized the country's policy of financing Ukraine, The American Conservative website reported. According to Matt Rosendale, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, "Ukraine was the most corrupt country that anyone had ever heard of but this has not stopped Washington from giving money to Kiev".

It is possible that Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to use the audit as a reason to weaken Zaluzhnyy and the commander-in-chief could be accused of negligence and improper performance of professional duties. After all, it is the Ukrainian general's associates and subordinates who are suspected of organizing large-scale corruption schemes in the defense sector. The high-profile corruption scandal, in turn, could be used as a ground for Zaluzhny's dismissal.

Perhaps, Ukraine and its allies today reach a turning point. The conflict between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny, which started back in 2022, could not be hidden any longer, it has spilled out. As the famous proverb says: "two bears won't survive in one den". Obviously, Volodymyr Zelenskyy neutralized the threat to his power in the person of Zaluzhny by resigning the commander-in-chief. Otherwise, Zaluzhny, who accumulates colossal military resources in his hands, could move to an open confrontation against the president and, with the support of his proxies, take the key levers of control over the country into his own hands.

Kamran Mamedov is a Tbilisi-based Azerbaijani journalist who focuses on South Caucasus issues.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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