Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Zelenskyy rebuke of top general signals friction in Ukrainian leadership

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 21: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. Zelensky is in the nation’s capital to meet with President Biden and Congressional lawmakers after attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)  (Drew Angerer)
By Andrew E. Kramer and Constant Méheut New York Times

SUMY, Ukraine – The office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday chastised Ukraine’s top military commander for publicly declaring the war at a stalemate, suggesting the comments would help the Russian invasion. It was a striking public rebuke that signaled an emerging rift between the military and civilian leadership at an already challenging time for Ukraine.

Speaking on national television, a deputy head of the office of the president, Ihor Zhovkva, said Gen. Valery Zaluzhny’s assertion that the fight against Russia was deadlocked “eases the work of the aggressor,” adding that the comments stirred “panic” among Ukraine’s Western allies.

At the same time, Zelenskyy disputed the general’s characterization of the fighting. “Time has passed, people are tired, regardless of their status, and this is understandable,” he said at a news conference Saturday, adding: “But this is not a stalemate, I emphasize this once again.”

The public censure of Zaluzhny came a day after the president’s office replaced one of his deputies, the head of special operations forces, who after his firing said he had been blindsided by the dismissal. It was unclear whether Zaluzhny, the overall commander of Ukraine’s forces, knew in advance of the planned dismissal.

The emerging fissure between the general and the president comes as Ukraine is struggling in its war effort, militarily and diplomatically. Its operations along the roughly 600-mile-long trench line have failed to produce any advances, while resulting in high casualties on both sides, and Ukraine is facing intensified Russian attacks in the East.

At the same time, skepticism about Ukraine aid has increased in some European capitals and among members of the Republican Party in the United States.

Ukraine’s leadership is also worried that the attention of Western allies has shifted to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and away from its war with Russia. “The war in the Middle East, this conflict takes away the focus,” Zelenskyy said Saturday.

Even as Ukrainian soldiers endure in the trenches, soaked now into streams of mud by autumn rains, officials and politicians in Ukraine and allied capitals have been passing around blame for the stalled Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in June and has advanced only a dozen or so miles through densely mined fields. U.S. officials have hinted that Ukraine was to blame for dispersing its forces too widely; Zelenskyy said his army did not receive sufficient weaponry to advance.

Speculation about tension between the president and the military’s commanding general over strategy and command appointments had been swirling in Kyiv for more than a year but had not spilled into public disagreement previously.

Zaluzhny did not immediately comment on the government’s rebuke or the dismissal of his chief of special operations.

The cause for the breach was an essay the general published in The Economist in which he asserted that drone reconnaissance and other technologies had rendered mechanized assaults by either side impossible. Further advances were improbable, he wrote, and Ukraine would not reach a “beautiful breakthrough” in the war without receiving more advanced weaponry.

“There are difficulties, there are different opinions,” Zelenskyy said in his appearance Saturday with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who paid a surprise visit to Kyiv on Saturday to discuss Ukraine’s accession process to the European Union.

“I believe that we have no right to even think about giving up, because what’s the alternative?” he added.

Although Zaluzhny was clearly not suggesting that Ukraine was losing the war, and he pointed out that Russia, too, had not made any substantive advances, he acknowledged in his essay that the two sides had entered a “stalemate.” He also wrote that breaking the deadlock would require technological advances to achieve air superiority, emphasizing the role of next-generation drones and electronic warfare.

In his comments Saturday, Zhovkva, the deputy in the president’s office, said the general’s remarks might reflect “a very deep strategic plan,” but risked harming Ukraine’s war effort. He said the essay had spurred foreign officials to call, asking “’What should I report to my leader? Are you really at a dead end?’” He added, “Was this the effect we wanted to achieve?”

Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said the public airing of the dispute was less political than pragmatic, in conveying the president’s wartime communications strategy. “What Zhovkva is saying is that it’s better to communicate on this behind closed doors,” without stirring public debate in allied nations, Haran said.

He added that Zelenskyy’s aides might be worried that Zaluzhny’s sobering conclusions could discourage some allies from sustaining their military aid.

Signs of friction surfaced Friday when Zelenskyy’s office dismissed one of Zaluzhny’s top deputies, the commander of Ukraine’s special operations forces, Gen. Viktor Khorenko, without initially providing an explanation. On Saturday, Ukraine’s minister of defense, Rustem Umerov, said he had recommended the dismissal but would not explain why, lest it “give reasons to the enemy to weaken Ukraine.”

The decision puzzled some because Khorenko had scored a string of successes in striking behind enemy lines, including hitting ships and infrastructure of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea and targets inside Russia. The long-range strikes and sabotage operations of the special forces had cheered Ukrainians.

But field commanders and military analysts had noted grumbling in the ranks over what were perceived as politically guided decisions on strategy, including the launch of an amphibious assault across the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine that has yet to secure a bridgehead on the Russian-held eastern bank. Another point of tension was the firing of battalion commanders who had led units in the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine over the summer.

U.S. military officers who have worked with Khorenko were surprised by the news of his ouster and described a close and effective working relationship with him, according to U.S. military officials.

Under Ukraine’s constitution, the president is empowered to appoint and dismiss the head of the special forces, although the position is directly subordinate to the commander in chief of the military. The firing appeared to undercut Zaluzhny’s authority.

Commentators including a member of Ukraine’s parliament said Khorenko’s firing appeared to be the most significant and potentially disruptive political meddling in the military’s prosecution of the war so far.

“The firing looks like political interference into the armed forces and into its combat actions,” the member, Solomiya Bobrovska, who serves on the parliament’s defense and intelligence committee, said in an interview. Bobrovska belongs to an opposition political party, Holos.

“This is a big mistake, and there will be consequences,” she said in the interview. She suggested that in fact it was the presidential office’s firing of a successful general that would aid the Russians.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.