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

As war frustrations rise, stalemate tests Zelenskyy and top general Zaluzhny

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walk to the Oval Office at the White House on Dec. 21, 2022.    (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
By Siobhán O’Grady Washington Post

KYIV, Ukraine – After months of heavy losses in a largely stalled counteroffensive against Russia, tension among Ukraine’s senior leaders has spilled awkwardly into the open in recent days – prompting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to call for a halt to political infighting.

“Everyone should be concentrating their efforts right now on defending the country,” Zelenskyy said Monday in his nightly address. “Put themselves together and do not rest; do not drown in infighting or other issues.” He warned that shattered unity could have drastic consequences: “The situation is now the same as it was before – if there is no victory, there will be no country.”

Zelenskyy’s plea to stop any infighting came after he engaged in his own rare, public dispute with the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, over whether the war has reached a World War I-style “stalemate” – as Zaluzhny asserted in a recent interview with the Economist.

Zelenskyy then rebuffed those remarks at a news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Everyone is tired and there are different opinions,” Zelenskyy said when discussing Zaluzhny’s “stalemate” remark. He also told NBC News that he does “not think that this is a stalemate.” But one of the president’s aides went so far as to say on Ukrainian TV that comments like Zaluzhny’s to the media “eases the work” of Russia.

Zaluzhny, a career military officer, enjoys huge national popularity, and he is widely viewed as a potential threat to Zelenskyy should he jump into politics. So far, the general has given no indication that he plans such a move.

But after 20 months of all-out war, public fissures are starting to appear in Ukraine’s previously unshakable national unity. The issue of a stalemate is especially sensitive because Ukrainian officials fear a perceived deadlock could mean they will be pressured into negotiations with Russia that would force them to cede territory. An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians oppose territorial concessions.

The friction among leaders is on full display as Ukraine prepares for the possibility of another brutal winter with nearly no hope of any significant progress on the southern front. Even Zaluzhny has said: “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

These open disagreements “serve as a distraction from winning the war and definitely play into (the) enemy’s hands,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, founder and director of the New Europe Center, a think tank in Kyiv. “(E)verything starts from … unity inside Ukraine,” Getmanchuk said.

The lack of good news is dampening civilian morale, as are growing fears Russia will soon renew its attacks on energy infrastructure that could make life miserable during the coldest months of the year.

The pressure is coming not only from the battlefield. International attention has largely diverted to the war in Israel and Gaza. And in Washington, there are disagreements among lawmakers over additional aid for Ukraine.

On Monday, Zelenskyy publicly dismissed the possibility of holding a presidential election in spring, as would normally occur on Ukraine’s political calendar. Some foreign officials had urged Zelenskyy to press on with elections, as a show of the country’s commitment to democracy.

Zelenskyy, however, declared that discussions of elections were “utterly irresponsible” during wartime. The country is under martial law, which prohibits holding elections. In addition to thousands of soldiers fighting on the front, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, which makes holding a fair election almost impossible.

Until now, Ukraine had shown solid national unity with political rivalries set aside as the country fought back against the Russian invasion. In recent days in Kyiv, however, some observers have expressed frustration over the sense that infighting has played a role in key decisions with potentially serious effect on the outcome of the war.

Last week, for example, Zelenskyy’s office removed Gen. Viktor Khorenko, who headed the country’s special forces.

Khorenko, who served under Zaluzhny, told Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda that he did not know the reason for his dismissal and that he “learned about it from the media.” Zaluzhny, he said, also appeared blindsided by the announcement and “could not explain this to me.”

Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, whose predecessor Oleksii Reznikov was ousted by Zelenskyy in September amid a corruption inquiry, said in a statement posted on Facebook that he could not publicly describe the reasons for Khorenko’s dismissal because such revelations could aid Russia.

In a top comment on Facebook, which was liked hundreds of times, former vice prime minister Pavlo Rozenko criticized Umerov’s handling of the issue. “You made a very big mistake when you made this submission behind Zaluzhny’s back,” Rozenko wrote. “And it is precisely such mistakes that weaken Ukraine in this war! … It is very unfortunate that political intrigues prevail in this situation!”

Many others chimed in to criticize the move. One speculated that Khorenko was dismissed because “it was not possible to dislodge Zaluzhny.”

The political fractures have further darkened a national mood that was already somber over a series of brutal missile strikes by Russia, and other military setbacks.

Over the weekend, at least 19 soldiers from Ukraine’s 128th Mountain Assault Brigade were killed when Russia fired a missile at a location near the front where they were gathered for a medal ceremony. The incident drew widespread outrage in Ukraine and is under investigation. The brigade commander was suspended and Zelenskyy demanded an investigation into what he described as “a tragedy that could have been avoided.”

Then, on Monday, a top aide to Zaluzhny was killed when a grenade he received as part of a birthday gift exploded at his home in what police said appeared to be an accident, according to a preliminary investigation.

Some analysts rejected the idea that there was any real division between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny regarding the future of the war.

“[B]oth Zaluzhny and Zelenskyy are trying to send the same message to the Western governments – wake up to what is at stake in Ukraine,” said Hanna Hopko, a foreign-policy analyst and former lawmaker. “I hope that instead of looking for some unimportant and populist reasons for limiting support for Ukraine, Western governments, politicians, and media will actually listen to what [they] are saying.”

Zelenskyy’s government, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to convince even close allies of just how much more weaponry, money and other resources they need to push Russian forces back.

Last weekend, before Zelenskyy’s announcement about the elections, von der Leyen, the European Commission president, visited Kyiv and praised Ukraine’s efforts in preparing for formal negotiations to join the bloc, saying the country had made “excellent progress.”

But some European partners have also started to rethink their national commitments.

Last month, the new Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, announced that Slovakia would no longer provide any weapons to Ukraine.

And recent comments by Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, suggest she, too, may be wary of long-term support. Meloni until now had backed Ukraine and condemned Moscow, bucking internal pressure, including from factions within her far-right coalition, which are seen as more sympathetic to Putin.

But last week, Russian comedians Vovan and Lexus – known for prank-calling prominent figures – released a 13-minute audio in which they duped Meloni into a candid assessment of the Ukraine war. “I see that there is a lot of fatigue. I have to say the truth, from all the sides,” Meloni said on the call, which took place in September. She apparently thought she was speaking to African diplomats.

“We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out,” Meloni said. “The problem is to find a way out which can be acceptable for both, without destroying the international law.”

Ukraine’s counteroffensive, she continued, “is not going” as Kyiv had hoped, and seemed unlikely to change the “destiny of the conflict.” She warned the war could “last many years if we don’t try to find some solutions.”

Meloni’s office expressed “regret” for the embarrassing mishap, and her chief diplomatic adviser resigned. But she also appeared to be echoing a certain national sentiment.

In his Monday night address, Zelenskyy insisted that Ukraine could defeat the Russian invaders provided the country stays unified. “Our victory is achievable. We will get there if we all stay focused on this aim,” the president said. “Not on political or personal benefits. Not on the infighting that serves no use.”