Some Ukrainian soldiers express unease over possible dismissal of army chief

February 6, 2024 3:00 pm

[Source: Reuters]

As Ukraine’s president looks poised to fire the head of his armed forces, some soldiers fighting Russia’s latest onslaught on the eastern front are sceptical, but say that much will depend on who he might be replaced by.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview published on Sunday that he is considering replacing armed forces Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi as part of a broader wartime shake-up of the top brass.

Zaluzhnyi is viewed as a hero by most Ukrainians, with the memories of the stunning underdog victories against Russia in 2022 outweighing the failure of last year’s counter-offensive in the minds of many.

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“I think this dismissal would not be appropriate now, because on the field of battle, you do not change commanders,” said a 31-year-old anti-tank unit commander who asked to be introduced by his call sign, Tiger.

Tiger’s brigade, the 59th, is fighting on a section of the front in the eastern Donetsk region near Avdiivka, a town built around a vast coking plant which has borne the brunt of Russia’s second winter assault.

The soldier, choosing his words carefully and speaking in the basement of a house where he was resting between frontline rotations, said a lot depended on who would replace him.

“The most popular (commanders) are those who are here, and who fight alongside the lads, who sit in the trenches,” he said.

He added that whoever was in charge should ensure the arrival of fresh replacement troops and a larger supply of drones – both things that Zaluzhnyi has pushed for.

The importance of the identity of the next commander was echoed by 33-year-old company commander Ihor.

“Before you fire someone from their post, especially such an important one, you need to be sure who will replace this person and what their vision is for the future of this situation,” he said.

“If our government wants to change someone, these changes should only make things better, and not worse.”
A December 2023 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 72% of Ukrainians would view the dismissal of Zaluzhnyi negatively, with only 2% seeing it positively.

The soldiers who spoke to Reuters were cautious not to express strident opinions in a row that pits their commander-in-chief against a president who heads the armed forces.

But Mykola, a 59-year-old who commands a GRAD rocket launcher truck, said he thought Zaluzhnyi had been sucked into a political dispute.

“Everyone thinks we had some successes in 2022… But in 2023 (not as much). That doesn’t mean that Zaluzhnyi was managing the armed forces badly,” he said.


Longstanding friction between Zelenskiy and Zaluzhnyi over the conduct of the war has come to a head over the issue of mobilisation.

Zelenskiy has said the military wants to recruit up to 500,000 men in 2024, something a source said the president opposes, although his government has submitted a draft law to parliament tightening up military recruitment.

The soldiers in Donetsk region, many of whom volunteered not expecting to be still fighting after two years of full-scale war, said they did not want to shoulder the entire burden of the conflict.

“The mobilisation is necessary because we don’t have enough people, the enemy has a great advantage over us in the number of soldiers,” Ihor said.

Tiger estimated 60-70% of the original 59th brigade were still serving, and it had not been able to fill all the gaps left by those killed, injured or signed off for other reasons.

Mykola, the 59-year-old, said he would go home when he turned 60 in line with the current rules. He said he felt for younger soldiers who didn’t have that option.

“Everyone has to understand that the entire country of Ukraine is at war, not just those who have been fighting for the last two years.”