New York – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s controversial decision to fire his popular commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhny has sent shockwaves through the country and divided opinion on the wisdom of the move.
Zelensky announced the dismissal on Thursday, stating that Zaluzhny would be replaced by General Oleksandr Syrsky, who has served as Commander of the Ukrainian Land Forces since 2019. The president justified the shake-up by saying that “everyone must change and adapt to the new realities.”
The move comes after months of reported tensions between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, which intensified in November when the general characterized the war as a “stalemate” in an interview. Zelensky publicly rejected this assessment just days later.
According to December polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 88% of Ukrainians expressed trust in Zaluzhny, while Zelensky’s approval had fallen from 84% to 62% over the past year. This indicates the army chief’s broad popularity at home.
Firing a top military leader mid-war is highly unusual and risky, experts say. It is something that states do when they are losing, not winning,” said George Beebe, former CIA director of Russia analysis and adviser to Dick Cheney.
Beebe warned the move could “erupt into a broader Ukrainian political crisis” given Zaluzhny’s reputation. He cautioned that no personnel change or new weapons can alter the challenging realities of prolonged conflict with a larger neighbor.
However, former U.S. Vice Admiral Robert Murrett views the transition as a “logical” step to adopt a long-term posture. New approaches may increase pressure on Russia while demonstrating Ukraine’s resolve to allies, he noted.
General Syrsky said his priorities will include detailed planning and logistics improvements. He led Kyiv’s successful defense in early 2022 and the Kharkiv counteroffensive driving Russia’s forces back.
Analysts expect Syrsky will readily implement Zelensky’s policy of expanded conscription, despite public opposition. “Zelensky badly wanted to shift responsibility for mobilization onto the military, and Syrsky will most likely take on the role of ‘bad cop’,” said researcher Konstantin Skorkin.
The shake-up comes as Russia’s invasion enters its second year in a bloody stalemate. Ukraine has depended on Western military aid to grind Moscow’s advances to a halt, while Russian strikes continue devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians.
Zelensky’s firing of the popular Zaluzhny is seen by experts as further consolidating presidential power domestically after declaring martial law. Opponents warn of authoritarian drift, but supporters argue centralized authority is necessary against Russia’s existential threat.
With Syrsky’s appointment, Zelensky bets a new phase of the war demands fresh military leadership to implement his strategic vision. But sidelining respected generals risks morale and political backlash.
Much now hinges on Syrsky’s performance. Failure to achieve battlefield successes or improvement in conscripts’ conditions could weaken Zelensky’s position. But if the reshuffle enables operational breakthroughs, it may be remembered as a tough but necessary decision.
Only time will tell whether Zelensky’s gamble pays off amid a complex and shifting conflict. For now, the muted public response suggests Ukrainians are giving their president the benefit of the doubt. But Zelensky faces growing scrutiny as he leads the country through a grueling new year of war.