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Will Ukraine's leadership reset work?

 Photo composite of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Valery Zaluzhny.
Photo composite of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Valery Zaluzhny.

Ukraine is set for a major leadership reshuffle after Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted he would replace the "extremely popular" head of the armed forces.

"A reset, a new beginning is necessary," the Ukrainian president told Italian national broadcaster Rai TV on Sunday, following reports that he had told the White House he would fire General Valery Zaluzhny, who rejected a request to step down.

The pair are "locked in a dispute over a new military mobilisation drive", a source told Reuters, with Zelenskyy "opposing Zaluzhny's proposal to call up 500,000 fresh troops" to bolster Ukraine's beleaguered forces. Last Thursday, Zaluzhny claimed in an article for CNN that his government had failed to mobilise enough troops, ahead of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion.

Zelenskyy told Rai TV that "I have something serious in mind, which is not about a single person but about the direction of the country's leadership", with "a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military".

What did the commentators say?

Before Russia's invasion in February 2022, Zelenskyy "frequently hired and fired top government officials", said Time. But if this reshuffle goes ahead, "it could be the first major personnel shake-up in Ukraine's government since the war started".

Despite Ukraine's unsuccessful counteroffensive last summer, Zaluzhny, known as the Iron General, "remains Ukraine's most trusted public figure", said The Times. He has an approval rating of more than 90%, according to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology – higher than Zelenskyy.

The poll found that 75% of Ukrainians would disapprove of Zelenskyy firing the "gruff and no-nonsense general who has led the country's armed forces since 2021", said the paper. Replacing him would also be "massively unpopular" with the armed forces and could wound morale on the battered frontlines.

Ukraine's Western allies are "nervous about the looming shake-up" too, said the FT's Ukraine correspondent Christopher Miller. Any change of command, military or otherwise, would come "at a critical juncture in the war".

Russia started this year with "unprecedented barrages aimed at overpowering Ukraine's air defences", while Ukrainian forces are rationing weapons. Kyiv is still awaiting a "vital" $60 billion aid package from the US, which has stalled in Congress amid a dispute between the White House and Republicans. And while the EU last week agreed a €50 billion aid package, the bloc is "still quarrelling about military funding".

Military strategist Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general, said in a post on his blog that the holdouts in the US Congress "could exploit a change in the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, and any public fallout afterwards, as additional evidence for why they shouldn't support further packages of US assistance for Ukraine".

Zelenskyy will almost certainly have to dismiss Zaluzhny to "assert his authority", said Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London, in The New Statesman.

But it could backfire. Although Zaluzhny has denied political ambitions, he is seen as the only credible rival to Zelenskyy when Ukraine finally holds its delayed presidential election. Without a government role, Zaluzhny can "maintain his profile and become a rallying figure for the opposition".

And if Zelenskyy replaces Zaluzhny, everyone will assume that a successor is merely "implementing the president's preferred strategy", said Freedman. So if this year proves even more difficult than the last for Ukraine, "it will be on him".

What next?

The planned reshuffle "may signal Kyiv's desire for a fresh approach to the conflict", said Reuters. Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of land forces, and Kyrylo Budanov, head of the defence ministry's intelligence directorate, are "the two leading candidates to replace Zaluzhny", said Al Jazeera.

However, Syrsky, 58, is "widely disliked" among Ukraine's soldiers, said the FT's Miller, as they blame him for unnecessary loss of weapons and lives. Budanov, 38, "does not have the experience of Zaluzhny and Syrsky as an army commander", and his "famously brazen tactics" have put Kyiv's allies "on edge".

Crucially, neither can hope to replicate the "rapport" Zaluzhny has built with counterparts in Nato countries, said Freedman.

But this situation "needs to be resolved soon". In times of war, political leaders must "think about sustaining morale and international support", Freedman added. With each big strategic decision, "many lives and the very survival of the state" are at stake.