After weeks of speculation, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has finally announced the dismissal of the country’s top general and a shake-up of the overall military leadership. The departure of Gen Valery Zaluzhnyi had been well flagged, but it remains unclear what implications it might have for Ukrainian military strategy as the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches. Zaluzhnyi, who has commanded the armed forces since war broke out, is the most popular public figure in the country. His removal may therefore pose some political risks for the president, who appears to have come to see him as a potential rival.
The move comes after last summer’s failed Ukrainian counter-offensive and at a time when the military outlook has become progressively less optimistic. Zaluzhnyi was the first senior figure to acknowledge the “stalemate”, much to Zelenskiy’s displeasure at the time.
There is little expectation of radical change under the new commander, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, who led the defence of Kyiv in the early weeks of the war and was responsible for retaking most of the Kharkiv region at the end of 2022. His willingness to accept casualties during last year’s bloody defence of Bakhmut is one reason he is less popular than his predecessor among the rank and file.
As winter draws to a close, Ukraine faces several daunting obstacles to its stated war aim of regaining full control of its sovereign territory. A shortage of munitions means Russia, which has ramped up military production, is now firing 10,00 shells a day, five times more than Ukraine. There is an ongoing impasse over increasing the rate of conscriptions. And despite confirmation of €50 billion in EU aid, Republican resistance in Washington means president Biden’s planned aid package remains stalled in Congress.
The bleak conclusion is that there are few alternatives open to the new commander for the rest of 2024 other than retrenchment and reinforcement along the current front line in the hope that new, more favourable conditions will materialise either internationally or on the battlefront.