February 24, 2024

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Ukraine informs the United States of its decision to dismiss General Valery Zalozhny

The Ukrainian government has informed the White House that President Volodymyr Zelensky has decided to fire his top military commander, Gen. Valery Zalozny, in what may be the biggest personnel change of the war, two people familiar with the discussion said.

These people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive conversation, said White House officials neither supported nor objected to the high-stakes decision, but recognized it as the president's sovereign choice.

Zelensky has not yet issued a formal decree announcing Zalozny's ouster, and it is uncertain when that might happen. Washington's advance notification, which has not been previously announced, reflects the influential role of the United States as Ukraine's strongest military and political supporter.

The early warning also provided the White House with an opportunity to urge Zelensky to reconsider the pivotal decision — although he decided not to do so.

The departure of Zalozny, one of the most popular figures in Ukrainian society, could affect troop morale and shake the confidence of Western donors at a time when the Ukrainian army is struggling to repel advancing Russian forces. He and Zelensky have disagreed over their differing strategies for overcoming battlefield setbacks as the war enters its third year.

But any move by the United States to challenge the decision of Zelensky, a popular figure in his own right, who has privately speculated that a new leader could revamp Kiev's fortunes, could be seen as exercising undue influence.

“The perception of division at the top in Kiev is not helpful for Ukraine, but the U.S. government should not get involved in it,” said Stephen Peifer, an expert on Eastern Europe at Stanford University and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

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“The president has the right to choose his government as he sees fit. “The decision should be squarely in Zelensky’s hands, as should the possible consequences,” added Alina Polyakova, head of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Zelensky could choose to postpone a decision indefinitely, but that seems unlikely, people familiar with his thinking said.

Mistrust between Zelensky and Zalozny has grown over the years, partly because the president suspects Zalozny of having political ambitions, but also because of disagreements over key military matters, including the general's request to mobilize about 500,000 new troops.

In a tense meeting on Monday, Zalozny said new recruits were needed to make gains on the battlefield in the face of the superior firepower and strength of Russian forces, people familiar with the conversation said. He added that Ukraine also needs to prepare for personnel losses, which are expected to be comparable to last year.

Zelensky has held back on recruiting many, in part because Ukraine lacks the money to pay their salaries without significantly raising taxes on its citizens. Such aggressive recruitment would also be politically unpopular.

A person close to Zelensky said: “The president does not believe that this mass mobilization of men between the ages of 18 and 27 is desirable or justified at this stage.”

A senior Ukrainian official said that Zelensky told Zalozny during the meeting that he would be fired.

Zelensky's spokesman, Serhiy Nikiforov, denied on Monday that the president had fired Zalozny, but he has not responded to requests for comment since.

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On Thursday, Zalozny published A Column on the CNN website He claimed that the Ukrainian government had failed to mobilize sufficient numbers of troops and called for upgrading the country's high-tech military capabilities.

“We must acknowledge the significant advantage the enemy has in mobilizing human resources and how this compares to the inability of Ukraine’s state institutions to improve manpower levels in our armed forces without using unpopular measures,” he wrote.

Finding a replacement for Zalozny is a big challenge.

One possible candidate is the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Lieutenant General Kirilo Budanov. The 38-year-old has a background in special forces, not as an army commander. His appointment likely signals a move toward asymmetric tactics — such as drone strikes deep into Russia province – In a war whose front lines have been largely static for the past year.

But it is unclear whether he wants the position, a person familiar with the matter said. “He loves his job and might want to keep blowing things up in Russia,” the person said.

The other option is Oleksandr Sirsky, the current commander of the Ground Forces. The 58thThe 18-year-old was credited with leading the defense of Kiev in the first month of the war and then organizing a successful counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region in the fall of 2022.

But among ordinary soldiers, Sersky is particularly disliked, with many viewing him as a Soviet-style commander who kept troops under fire for too long in World War II. The eastern city of Bakhmut when Ukraine should have withdrawn.

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“He is a General Patton-type character,” the person close to Zelensky said. “He doesn't have the HR gene in his body.”

Whoever replaces Zalozny may not end the public disputes between the general and the president, and “will remain a popular figure in Ukraine,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert and former US intelligence official.

She added: “It is unclear how this will affect Ukraine's military performance.” “It will depend on who succeeds him and how the rest of the army views his successor — and how effective his successor will be on the battlefield.”

Isabelle Khorshodian and David L. Stern from Kyiv.