Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacks ‘iron general’ military chief in major shake-up

Key Points
  • Valerii Zaluzhnyi gained a reputation among the Ukrainian public and media for his successful military campaigns.
  • He had come to be known as the “iron general” and a symbol of resistance against Russia.
  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy has offered Zaluzhnyi a position within the Ukrainian state, as acknowledgement of his service.
Ukraine’s top commander Valerii Zaluzhnyi has been removed from his post, in the biggest shake-up of Kyiv’s military leadership since Russia’s invasion almost two years ago.
The popular general had led the Ukrainian army since the start of the war, pushing back a vastly more powerful invading force in the first months of the conflict.
But the failure of a much-vaunted counteroffensive last summer and public disagreement with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy tarnished his reputation in the president’s office.
“Today we had a frank discussion about what needs to change in the army. Urgent changes,” Zelenskyy said in a statement on social media.
“I have offered General Zaluzhnyi to continue to be part of the team of the Ukrainian state. I would be grateful for his consent.”

Those comments came as Ukraine’s defence minister — relatively new in his post — ended days of speculation over Zaluzhnyi’s future by announcing on social media that he was being replaced.

Oleksandr Syrskiy, seen on the right with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will be Ukraine's new army chief.

Oleksandr Syrskiy, seen on the right with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will be Ukraine’s new army chief. Source: AP / Efrem Lukatsky

Oleksandr Syrsky, who commanded Ukraine’s lightning Autumn 2022 counter-offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, will take Zaluzhnyi’s place, Zelenskyy said.

After over a year of deadlocked trench warfare, with Russia’s army relentlessly pressing against outmanned Ukrainian soldiers across the sprawling front, Kyiv has sought urgent changes.
Zelenskyy called on his new military leadership to devise a strategy to beat back Russian forces.

“The year 2024 can be successful for Ukraine only if we make effective changes in the basis of our defence, which is the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.

Two people walking along a road with destroyed buildings.

Two people walk near the rubble of destroyed buildings in Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Thursday. Source: AAP, EPA / Antonio Cotrim

The ‘Iron General’

Zaluzhnyi was known as a symbol of resistance against the Russian invaders, with Ukrainian media dubbing him the “iron general”.
He spearheaded some of the nation’s most successful military campaigns, such as the liberation of Kherson in November 2022.
He was also popular with his troops, many of whom considered him a father figure.

However, the opinions he expressed in Western media outlets were a cause of concern for Zelenskyy.

In an interview with the Economist last November, Zaluzhnyi stated that there would likely be no “beautiful ending” to the conflict with Russia and that the two sides were at a “stalemate”.
Zelenskyy later denied those statements.
Zaluzhnyi also made calls to modernise Ukraine’s military system to bring more men into the fray and replace the tired soldiers. He claimed he was being bogged down by “regulatory framework”.

However, the issue of replacing long-serving soldiers in the war was considered highly divisive.