Zelenskyy appoints new Ukrainian army chief, displacing popular military leader

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy replaced Ukraine’s popular army chief with his ground forces commander on Thursday, at a time when Russian forces are gaining the upper hand nearly two years into their war.

The shakeup ushering in a new military leadership follows months of speculation about a rift between Zelenskyy and army chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who many Ukrainians see as a national hero.

“As of today, a new management team takes over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in a statement.

He named Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi as the new head of the Armed Forces.

Syrskyi, commander of the ground forces, takes the helm amid deep uncertainty as Kyiv awaits vital military aid from the United States that has been delayed by political infighting there for months.

With Ukraine struggling to rapidly reform its army mobilization program, the sacking of Zaluzhnyi could deal a blow to the morale of troops on a 1,000-kilometre front. It could also backfire politically, hurting Zelenskyy’s ratings.

Polling surveys put the public’s trust in Zaluzhnyi, known by some as the “Iron General,” at over 90 per cent — significantly higher than Zelenskyy’s 77 per cent late last year.

‘New realities’ for Ukraine: Zaluzhnyi

The military shakeup unfolded over a series of statements in which Zelenskyy said he had met Zaluzhnyi to discuss changes to the military leadership. He had asked the general to remain “on his team,” he said.

In his own statement, Zaluzhnyi said he had had an “important and serious conversation” with Zelenskyy and that a decision had been made to change battlefield tactics and strategy.

“The tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024. Therefore, everyone must change and adapt to new realities as well. To win together too,” his statement said.

The two statements were published within moments of one another, suggesting that the two most prominent wartime figures in Ukraine had co-ordinated closely to put on a display of unity.

Neither Zelenskyy nor Zaluzhnyi provided any detail about what the new strategy might entail.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said Ukraine needed a rethink of its tactics, “which did not fully ensure proper results last year.”

Ukraine needs to “prevent stagnation on the front line, which negatively affects public sentiment, to find new functional and high-tech solutions that will allow (Ukraine) to retain and develop the initiative,” he said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.