Kyiv | Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he is thinking about dismissing the country's top military officer as part of a broader leadership shakeup, a possibility that has shocked the nation fighting a war to end Russia's invasion and also worried Ukraine's Western allies.
Meanwhile, four people were killed and at least one was injured in a Monday afternoon strike over the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, the head of the local military administration said.
Zelenskyy confirmed in an interview with Italian broadcaster RAI TV released late Sunday that he was thinking about removing Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the popular commander-in-chief of Ukraine's armed forces. He said he was contemplating the move to ensure the country remains led by individuals who are “convinced of victory” against Russia.
“A reset, a new beginning is necessary,” Zelenskyy said. The review is "not about a single person but about the direction of the country's leadership.” "I'm thinking about this replacement, but you can't say here we replaced a single person,” Zelenskyy said. “When we talk about this, I mean a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military.
If we want to win, we must all push in the same direction, convinced of victory. We cannot be discouraged, let our arms fall. We must have the right positive energy.” Zelenskyy's comments were his first acknowledgement of Zaluzhnyi,'s possible firing. The potential ouster of the general already has caused an uproar in Ukraine and delighted the Kremlin as the war approaches its second anniversary.
Zaluzhnyi is widely respected among Ukrainian service members and considered a national hero. He is credited with stalling Russia's full-scale invasion in the early days of the war and expertly pushing back Moscow's troops.
Kyiv Mayor Vitalii Klitschko criticized the possibility of Zaluzhnyi's firing, saying it was due to the general's leadership that “many Ukrainians truly trust the armed forces.” “Today is a moment when politics might prevail over reason and country's interests," Klitschko said on social media. The mayor of Ukraine's capital city has been a vocal critic of Zelenskyy. The presidency in turn has accused Klitschko's office of inefficiencies.
It is unclear who might replace Zaluzhnyi and if his successor would command the same level of respect from Ukraine's troops and foreign defence leaders. His firing could risk degrading morale at a critical time in the war.
According to Ukrainian and Western media reports, Zelenskyy asked Zaluzhnyi to resign last week, but the general refused. Zaluzhnyi has not commented publicly on the reports.
Tensions between him and the president have been rising since a much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, which was launched in June with the help of an array of Western weapons, failed to produce major territory gains in Russian-occupied areas, disappointing allies.
Ukraine now is grappling with ammunition and personnel shortages while Russia is on the offensive, mounting relentless attacks. The need for a broad mobilization to beef up the number of Ukrainian troops has reportedly been one of the areas of disagreement between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi.
Zelenskyy said at the end of last year that he had turned down the military's request to marshal up to 500,000 people, demanding more details about how the mobilisation would be organized and paid for.
A rift between Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy first broke into the open in the fall when the general acknowledged in an interview with The Economist that the fighting with Russia had stalemated. The president strongly denied that was the case.
For his part, Zaluzhnyi has published two essays laying out his vision for how Ukraine can win the war. In his writings, he said it was critical for Ukraine to have air superiority, to extending its efficiency in countering enemy artillery, to build up reserves and to increase electronic warfare capabilities.
Ukraine desperately needs more Western military assistance as the Russian forces are pressing in many directions of the 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) frontline, but an aid package has been blocked in the US Congress. Zaluzhnyi's dismissal could fuel uncertainty among Western allies.
Russia has rejoiced at the prospect, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that the talk about Zaluzhnyi's dismissal exposed rifts in the Ukrainian leadership.
The Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported Monday that Zelenskyy also was considering the removal of General Staff Chief Serhii Shaptala.
Zaluzhnyi on Monday congratulated Shaptala on his birthday and posted a picture of them together on Facebook.
“It will still be very difficult for us, but we will definitely never be ashamed,” Zaluzhnyi wrote.