KYIV — With his days in command apparently numbered, Ukraine’s top general alleged on Thursday that the Ukrainian government had failed to mobilize sufficient numbers of troops and called for an urgent upgrade of the country’s high-tech warfare capabilities to overcome Russia’s larger and better-armed forces “and ensure the existence of statehood.”
Gen. Valery Zaluzhny was told on Monday by President Volodymyr Zelensky that he was being dismissed, but as of Friday morning a formal order removing him as head of commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces had not been received, according to a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to speak publicly. Zaluzhny’s relationship with Zelensky had been fraying for months, amid a failed counteroffensive last year, but tensions boiled over at a meeting on Monday in part because of a disagreement over how many new troops Ukraine needs to mobilize.
Zaluzhny, far from retreating in his clash with the president, wrote an article for CNN, published late Thursday evening, in which he called for “the wholesale redesign of battlefield operations — and the abandoning of outdated, stereotypical thinking.”
While the article did not call out Zelensky by name, it amounted to a remarkable rebuke of the president who has resisted Zaluzhny’s call to mobilize nearly 500,000 new soldiers, saying he was not convinced it was necessary.
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Zelensky had also publicly criticized Zaluzhny’s comments in an interview with the Economist in November, in which he said that the war had reached a “stalemate.” The assessment that battle lines have mostly stagnated and that the war is one of grinding attrition, with little forward movement by either side, is now widely accepted as fact.
“We must acknowledge the significant advantage enjoyed by the enemy in mobilizing human resources and how that compares with the inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures,” Zaluzhny wrote in the article for CNN.
Zaluzhny has not commented publicly about the reports of his dismissal, which presents a huge risk for Zelensky given the general’s popularity within the military and more broadly among the Ukrainian public. Already, there are signs of a backlash among commanders on the battlefield and there is no indication that a new commander would be able to deliver any quick improvement of Ukraine’s difficult position on the battlefield.
On Monday, Zelensky’s spokesman, Serhiy Nykyforov, denied that the president had fired Zaluzhny, but he has not responded to an updated request for comment since then. With Russian stepping up its attacks at many points on the battlefield, and with widespread reports of Zaluzhny’s dismissal in the Ukrainian and international press, every day that passes with Zaluzhny still in the post raises questions for Zelensky and the chief of his presidential administration.
Government and military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they expected the formal dismissal decree to be issued this week.
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The CNN article, describing Ukraine’s military challenges in blunt terms, provided an example of Zaluzhny’s occasional outspokenness, which has grated on the president and his top advisers, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.
On Friday morning, Zelensky’s press service did not respond to requests for a comment about Zaluzhny’s article, which seemed to be a valedictory of sorts and also his vision of how Ukraine might overcome a far bigger and better-armed invading Russian force. Russian troops currently occupy about one-fifth of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, including Crimea, which Moscow invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.
In his essay, Zaluzhny said that Ukraine “must contend with a reduction in military support from key allies” who were “grappling with their own political tensions.” A roughly $60 billion aid package proposed by the Biden administration has stalled in Congress amid opposition by some Republicans. On Thursday, the European Union approved a roughly $54 billion aid package after being delayed for weeks by opposition from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
“Our partners’ stocks of missiles, air defense interceptors and ammunition for artillery is becoming exhausted, due to the intensity of hostilities in Ukraine, but also from a global shortage of propellant charges,” Zaluzhny wrote.
Zaluzhny also criticized the “weakness of the international sanctions regime” of Ukraine’s Western partners, which he said meant that “Russia, in partnership with certain others, is still able to deploy its military-industrial complex in pursuit of a war of attrition against us.”
He proposed that the key to Ukraine’s victory was a sweeping futuristic upgrade of warfare capabilities including drones.
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Ukraine’s “number one priority,” he wrote, should be to create an “entire arsenal of (relatively) cheap, modern and highly effective, unmanned vehicles and other technological means,” such as electronic and cyberwarfare.
“The challenge for our armed forces cannot be underestimated,” he wrote. “It is to create a completely new state system of technological rearmament.”
One benefit of the high-tech strategy, he said, would be to provide real-time intelligence for Ukrainian forces, “wear down” the enemy and place “fewer soldiers in harm’s way, thus reducing the level of human losses.”
Zaluzhny suggested that it would not take long for Ukraine to achieve this overhaul.
“Taking everything into account at this moment,” he wrote, “we think the creation of such a system could be achieved in five months.”
Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Dnipro, Ukraine contributed to his report.