Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has said a broad “reset” of the country’s military and leadership is needed – suggesting his plans go beyond removing his army’s top commander, Valery Zaluzhny.
“Definitely a reset, a new beginning is necessary,” he said, when asked about rumours of General Zaluzhny’s dismissal by Italian outlet Rai News. “I have something serious in mind, which is not about a single person but about the direction of the country’s leadership.”
Mr Zelensky said he had some “serious” decisions on his mind. His comments come days after it was rumoured that Mr Zelensky had called General Zaluzhny into his office and told the military commander-in-chief that he intended to fire him.
“I mean a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military,” Mr Zelensky said. “If we want to win we must all push in the same direction, convinced of victory, we cannot be discouraged, let our arms fall, we must have the right positive energy,” he added.
The interview amounts to the first public acknowledgement by the Ukrainian president of his plans to remove senior officials.
The Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported on Monday that Mr Zelensky also was considering the removal of the chief of the general staff, Serhii Shaptala. General Zaluzhny congratulated Lieutenant General Shaptala on his birthday this week, and posted a picture of them together on Facebook.
“It will still be very difficult for us, but we will definitely never be ashamed,” General Zaluzhny wrote.
Sources told the Financial Times that Mr Zelensky offered the military chief two alternative roles last Monday, including ambassador to the UK, a position that has been unfilled since last year, but that General Zaluzhny refused them.
The Ukrainian commander-in-chief, 50, is a four-star general and a career military man, dubbed the “iron general” by admirers. “Zaluzhny has his reputation as an iron general, the embodiment of the Ukrainian armed forces that saved this country against an enemy as fearsome as Russia. Zaluzhny personally has the support of 88 per cent of Ukrainians. 97 per cent of Ukrainians trust the armed forces under his command,” said Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko on Twitter/X.
He was appointed by Mr Zelensky in July 2021 and has overseen Ukraine’s military operations since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
He was credited with orchestrating Ukraine’s short-notice defence of the capital, Kyiv, at the start of the war, as well as counteroffensives in Kharkiv, northeast Ukraine, in September 2023, followed by the successful liberation of Kherson two months later.
A December 2023 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found 72 per cent of Ukrainians would view the dismissal of General Zaluzhny negatively, with only 2 per cent seeing it positively. Mr Zelensky’s popularity, meanwhile, had dropped from 84 per cent in December 2022 to 62 per cent a year later.
Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, who has had his own disagreements with President Zelensky, criticised the possibility of General Zaluzhny’s firing, saying it was due to the general’s leadership that “many Ukrainians truly trust the armed forces”.
Mr Klitschko said on social media: “Today is a moment when politics might prevail over reason and [the] country’s interests.”
Ukrainian soldiers on the front line said they were also uncomfortable about the rumours that General Zaluzhny would be fired.
“I think this dismissal would not be appropriate now, because on the field of battle you do not change commanders,” said a 31-year-old anti-tank unit commander who asked to be introduced by his call sign, Tiger.
Tiger’s brigade, the 59th, is fighting on a section of the front in the eastern Donetsk region near Avdiivka, a town built around a vast coking plant which has borne the brunt of Russia’s assaults in the area.
Veteran Ukrainian war journalist Andriy Tsaplienko wrote on Telegram on Sunday that Russian forces had recently entered the city from the northeast.
“The situation in the city has become critical,” he said.
Tiger said that whoever was in charge should ensure the arrival of fresh replacement troops and a larger supply of drones – both things that General Zaluzhny has pushed for – in order to shore up Avdiivka’s defence.
The issue of mobilisation has been central to Mr Zelensky and General Zaluzhny’s recent disagreements. In December last year, Mr Zelensky claimed General Zaluzhny had requested the president mobilise an additional half a million Ukrainian civilians to counter Russia’s manpower advantage. Gen Zaluzhny denied that figure, but he has stated the need to mobilise more troops since. Local news reports that month said Mr Zelensky was “bypassing” his top commander in communications with the military.
In an op-ed for CNN last week, General Zaluzhny wrote: “We must acknowledge the significant advantage enjoyed by the enemy in mobilising human resources and how that compares with the inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures.”
Mr Zelensky had previously criticised General Zaluzhny for describing the front line as a “stalemate” in an op-ed for The Economist.
The word had become taboo after a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive last summer failed to make serious territorial gains.
During his interview with Rai News, however, Mr Zelensky admitted that the front line had, in fact, reached a stalemate.
“As far as the war on the ground is concerned there is a stalemate, it’s a fact,” Mr Zelensky said, adding: “That is because there have been delays in equipment and delays mean mistakes.”
Dutch defence minister Kajsa Ollongren announced on Monday that the Netherlands was preparing six additional F-16 fighter jets to give Ukraine on top of 18 the country previously pledged. Ukraine’s “aerial superiority is essential for countering Russian aggression”, Ms Ollongren said in a message on Twitter/X. Denmark has promised to give 19 F-16s to Ukraine. General Zaluzhny has often spoken about his belief that air superiority would be critical for Ukraine if it were to push Russia’s forces back.
Lieutenant General Serheii Nayev, the commander of the Ukrainian military’s joint forces, said that the country was set to receive missiles with a range of 180 to 300 miles along with the F-16s, as part of upcoming defence aid packages from its allies, according to Ukrainian news agency RBK-Ukraine.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report