Ukrainians Praise Ousted Army Chief, Voice Fears Over Successor

The shake-up in the Ukrainian military comes almost two years into Russia

The dismissal of Ukraine’s popular army chief Valery Zaluzhny spread anger and dismay across the war-torn country on Friday — from the streets of Kyiv to the frontline.

President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Thursday that he was firing Zaluzhny, who headed the army since before Russia’s invasion and enjoyed huge popularity.

He was replaced by Oleksandr Syrsky, previously in command of the ground forces.

Zaluzhny is known to have had huge trust among the military ranks, and many fighters battling Russia in the east were outraged to see him removed.

“I’m honestly shocked and I’m not the only one,” a 46-year-old soldier, speaking anonymously from the frontline Donetsk region, told AFP.

He called Zaluzhny “Uncle Valery”, his popular moniker in the military.

The dismissal — rumoured for weeks — was also not welcome by ordinary Ukrainians.

The military reshuffle came as Ukraine hopes to mobilise hundreds of thousands of fresh fighters, while the public mood is glum.

Olga Krut, a 33-year-old on maternity leave in Kyiv, said Zaluzhny “is the only person who really thought about Ukraine”.

She said the commander had “for two years shown himself to be the best”, adding that he was “trying to do something to keep the army together, and people had some trust in him”.

Syrsky, meanwhile, is credited with pushing back Russian forces as they tried to reach Kyiv at the start of the 2022 invasion.

But some Ukrainians, like sales manager Vlada Omelchenko, blamed Syrsky for military setbacks in eastern Ukraine before Russia’s invasion.

“I felt calmer with Zaluzhny” in charge, the 22-year-old said.

Some Ukrainians suggested that Zelensky made the change to remove a powerful rival.

Zaluzhny’s popularity ratings have remained sky high while the president’s have fallen since the start of the war.

“Politics is a game, it’s chess, and you understand that Zelensky maybe saw a rival,” said Pavlo Kostenko, a 32-year-old forex trader.

Others were worried that two years into war was the wrong time to change military leadership.

“As they say, you don’t change horses midstream,” said Valentyna Polishchuk, a souvenir seller.

“Everyone had come to love and trust Zaluzhny and now there’s some kind of unclear situation,” she said.

But for Anatoliy, 30, who works in a shoe shop, a time had come for change.

“The first period of the war was one thing. Now we already have a different period, with a different scale, different schemes, different tactics. So perhaps it is expedient,” he said.

He admitted that he knew little about Syrksky, Zaluzhny’s replacement: “We have a new driver, but we don’t know how he drives.”

Valentyn Shevchenko, a 23-year-old soldier now in Kyiv, said the change of leadership “will have a negative impact” on troops.

Soldiers on the front line who spoke to AFP did not mince their words as they voiced fears for the future with a new commander-in-chief.

“The atmosphere is not fucking happy. Zaluzhny had something that no one else had: trust and respect. No other military chief has it on such a scale,” said a sergeant in the Donetsk region who gave his surname as Luntik.

“People really call him Butcher,” he said. “Syrsky does not consider it necessary to spare people, people are expendable for him, this is the Soviet school of military training.”

“We see this as a betrayal,” said another soldier fighting near Lyman in the Donetsk region.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the soldier also said Syrsky was seen as prioritising military aims over troops’ lives.

“This is an approach that is no different from Russia’s,” he said.

He added that he feared the next few months would see “serious assaults” that would be hailed as a success in media, but “no one will say what the price of this success is”.

“At this level, changes in the leadership team are worrisome,” said Ruslan, a tank driver in the area of Lyman.

“The negative thing is that maybe Ukraine will try to attack… But it does not have the means,” Ruslan said, as Ukraine pleads with its Western allies for more ammunition.

Valery Zaluzhny, right, was Ukraine’s chief commander since before Russia’s invasion
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed Oleksandr Syrsky as the country's new commander-in-chief
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed Oleksandr Syrsky as the country’s new commander-in-chief

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