Zelenskyy drops top army general at pivotal moment in war with Russia

Ukraine's struggles with ammunition and personnel come on the heels of a failed summer counteroffensive last year, ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy reports

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has replaced his top army general in a major shake-up of the country's war strategy as the conflict with Russia grinds into a third year.

As the country currently grapples with a shortage in ammunition and personnel - Mr Zelenskyy thanked popular military leader General Valerii Zaluzhnyi for his two years of service as commander-in-chief.

“The time for such a renewal is now," Mr Zelenskyy said. The Ukrainian president has appointed Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the leader of Ukraine's ground forces, to lead the army.

Fifty-eight year-old Col Gen Syrskyi has been been involved in the Ukrainian army's efforts to adopt Nato standards since 2013.

What could Zaluzhnyi's exit mean for Ukraine?

Gen Zaluzhnyi, in a Telegram message, did not announce he had stepped down but said he accepted that “everyone must change and adapt to new realities” and agreed that there is a “need to change approaches and strategy” in the war.

The statement followed days of speculation spurred by local media reports that Mr Zelenskyy would sack Gen Zaluzhnyi in the most far-reaching shake-up of the top military brass since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feburary 24 2022.

Ukraine's struggles with ammunition and personnel come on the heels of a failed summer counteroffensive last year.

Gen Zaluzhnyi was highly regarded by his troops and by foreign military officials. Some analysts warned that his exit could bring unwelcome disruption, potentially driving a wedge between the Ukrainian army and politicians, and fueling uncertainty among Kyiv’s Western allies.

Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi has been replaced by Zelenskyy in a major military shake-up. Credit: AP

There has been little change in positions along the 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) front line over the winter, though the Kremlin’s forces have kept up their attacks at certain points.

Faced with a shortfall in anticipated supplies of Western weaponry, Ukraine has been digging defences, while Moscow has put its economy on a war footing to give its military more muscle.

Rifts within Ukraine’s top leadership burst into the open recently with swirling rumors starting on Jan. 29 that Gen Zaluzhnyi would be dismissed.

Mr Zelenskyy’s office and the Defence Ministry denied the rumors, but the reports fueled expectations he was on his way out.

Why has Zelenskyy seemingly dropped one of his most popular war commanders?

Strains had appeared between Gen Zaluzhnyi and Mr Zelenskyy - arguably the two most prominent figures in Ukraine’s fight - after the much-anticipated counteroffensive failed to meet its goal of penetrating Russia’s deep defences.

Kyiv’s Western allies had poured billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware into Ukraine to help it succeed.

Months later, amid signs of war fatigue in the West, Gen Zaluzhnyi described the conflict as being at a “stalemate,” just when Mr Zelenskyy was arguing in foreign capitals that Ukraine’s new weaponry had been vital.

Mr Zelenskyy said at the end of last year that he had turned down the military’s request to mobilise up to 500,000 people, demanding more details about how it would be paid for.

Born into a family of Soviet servicemen, Gen Zaluzhnyi is credited with modernising the Ukrainian army along NATO lines. He took charge seven months before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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Widely regarded in the West as an ambitious and astute battlefield commander, he has had a reputation for modesty in Ukraine.

Gen Zaluzhnyi earned broad public support after the successful defence of Kyiv in the early days of the war, followed by a triumphant counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and the liberation of Kherson.

His courage and defiance of Russia’s ambitions were renowned, and he became a symbol of resilience and national unity.

“We are on our land and we will not give it up,” Gen Zaluzhnyi said on the first day of the war.

Despite his popularity, Gen Zaluzhnyi shied from the spotlight, deferring that role to Mr Zelenskyy. He made limited public appearances and rarely gave interviews.

Retired Australian Major General Mick Ryan, a fellow of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, described Gen Zaluzhnyi as “a charismatic and popular military leader” who would be hard to replace.

His replacement will have to build personal relationships with US and NATO military chiefs while the perception of government instability “is a real danger area for” Mr Zelenskyy, Maj Gen Ryan wrote recently in an article posted online.

What is the latest in Ukraine's fight against Russia?

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces claimed to have shot down a Russian attack helicopter in eastern Ukraine near the city of Avdiivka, where soldiers are fighting from street to street as Russia's army steps up its four-month campaign to surround Kyiv’s defending troops.

Ukrainian soldiers used a portable anti-aircraft missile to take down the Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter, one of the Russian air force’s deadliest weapons, according to Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, the commander of Ukrainian units fighting on the southeastern front line.

Avdiivka has become “a primary focus” of Moscow’s forces, the UK Defence Ministry said in an assessment on Thursday.

Street-to-street combat is taking place in the city as Ukrainian troops seek to keep open their main supply route amid intense bombardment, the ministry said on X.

The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces reported that its troops had fended off 40 enemy assaults around Avdiivka over the previous 24 hours. That is roughly double the number of daily Russian assaults at other points along the front line.

Russia’s Pravda newspaper reported that the Russian army was attempting to cut a key logistics supply route for Ukraine in the village of Lastochkyne, about 6 kilometers (4 miles) west of Avdiivka.

The Russian military has used electronic warfare to take out the Starlink communications system which Ukrainian troops use to communicate, Pravda said.

Rescuers work at the scene of a building damaged by Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Credit: AP

Ukraine has built multiple defences in Avdiivka, complete with concrete fortifications and a network of tunnels. Despite massive losses of personnel and equipment, Russian troops have slowly advanced since October.

The fight has evolved into a gruesome effort for both sides. It has been compared to the nine months of fighting for Bakhmut, the Ukraine war’s longest and bloodiest battle. It ended with Russia capturing the bombed-out, deserted city last May in what Moscow hailed as a major triumph.

Both Bakhmut and Avdiivka are located in Ukraine's Donetsk region. Moscow-backed rebels seized part of the region in 2014 and Russia illegally annexed all of it in 2022 with three other Ukrainian regions.

Russia wants to capture the entire Donetsk region, where it currently holds just over half of the territory.

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