Zelenskyy’s Nearing End Game

In recent days, the global media has been buzzing with the escalating feud between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Valery Zaluzhny, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Army, and it appears that we have not reached the conclusion yet. According to the latest reports, Zelenskyy presented Zaluzhny with an offer on Monday: to resign as the commander-in-chief in exchange for continuing his career as a defence adviser. Press reports claim that Zaluzhny rejected the offer. According to an article by The Washington Post, the chief of staff will have to step down regardless, although the precise date of his departure is not yet known.

‘Personally I think this is a bad idea. There are not fundamental issues between them but Zelenskyy’s office has been concerned that Zaluzhny has been making political not military statements,’ Oleksii Goncharenko, a Ukrainian opposition MP, stated on the matter. According to various reports, the President and the chief of the general staff have engaged in a heated debate on the new mobilization law, with Zaluzhny asserting that 500,000 new soldiers would be needed, while Zelenskyy contends that this number will certainly not be feasible for various reasons.

Zelenskyy’s office and the Ukrainian Defence Ministry denied rumors of Zaluzhny’s dismissal. Nevertheless, an article by The Times on Tuesday reported that Zelenskyy yielded to pressure from Washington, London, and senior Ukrainian military officials and stepped back from dismissing the chief of staff.

The recent events of the past few days are highly revealing of the state of democracy in Ukraine.

In a democratic system, military leadership is subordinate to political leadership, and if the president determines dissatisfaction with the army’s leadership, he has the right to dismiss the commander-in-chief. On the other hand, it is not a main feature of democracy either for a leader in power to try to remove a potentially threatening ‘opponent’ with very strong support

However, it seems that Zelenskyy no longer possesses the power to just dismiss Zaluzhny. It is not only the current situation that illustrates this very well but also a recent statement by Ruslan Bortnik, Director of the Ukrainian Institute for Politics. In his video blog, Bortnik mentioned that Zelenskyy’s power has primarily relied on the parliamentary dominance of his party, the Servant of the People. However, internal conflicts could potentially lead to a restructuring of the power dynamics. In such a scenario, Zelenskyy would be required to consult with Rada deputies on most decisions, possibly resulting in a significant reduction of his powers.

But why did Zelenskyy want to sack Zaluzhny in the first place? According to The Washington Post, the Ukrainian president explained his decision to dismiss Zaluzhny by noting that Ukrainians were fatigued from the prolonged war, international military support had slowed down, with some of the Western partners having issues with the military leadership, and introducing a new leader to the army could potentially rejuvenate the situation. However, given the reported interference from Washington and London, this justification appears to be a less likely scenario.

It appears more likely that

Zelenskyy is afraid of Zaluzhny, and this is not surprising.

‘Zaluzhny has his reputation as an iron general and the national Salvator, the embodiment of the Ukrainian armed forces that saved this country against an enemy as fearsome as Russia. Zaluzhny personally has the support of 88 per cent of Ukrainians. 97 per cent of Ukrainians trust the armed forces under his command,’ Ukrainian journalist Ilia Ponomarenko stated in a post on the social media platform X.

A poll conducted last October indicated that 82 per cent of Ukrainians support Zelenskyy, in contrast to the 88 per cent for Zaluzhny. This signifies a decline of almost 10 percentage points from February 2023. According to an analysis by the Ukrainian Institute for Politics, Zaluzhny is not merely popular among Ukrainians; he is now the second most mentioned public figure in the media—following Zelenskyy.

If all of this were not enough, the chief of general staff received backing from former President Petro Poroshenko, currently one of the strongest opposition leaders in Ukraine. According to an article by The New York Times, Poroshenko stated that the Zaluzhny had become the personification of the unity required throughout the country during two years of intense fighting to safeguard the nation from Russian subjugation. ‘It [Zelenskyy’s animosity] is based on emotions and jealousy,’ Poroshenko noted.

Zelenskyy seems to believing that the way forward is to engage in increasingly intense rhetoric. In a recent interview with German public television, he warned that the war in Ukraine could easily escalate into a third world war if Western allies fail to provide the necessary military equipment. It is worth recalling Zelenskyy’s speech at the Golden Globes almost exactly one year ago: ‘…the war in Ukraine is not over yet, but the tide is turning, and it is already clear who will win…There will be no third world war,’ Zelenskyy stated at that time.

The Ukrainian president’s room for manoeuvre has been significantly constrained.

In Washington, lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on the financing of the $60 billion in financial and military aid for Ukraine. With presidential elections on the horizon, this situation is unlikely to change before November. The front lines are stagnant, with neither side able to make progress, and a war of attrition is increasingly favourable to Moscow. Alongside Zelenskyy, more and more influential figures are emerging, most notably Zaluzhny, who poses a threat to the president’s authority. One wrong decision and the house of cards could collapse, as demonstrated perfectly by the circumstances surrounding Zaluzhny’s alleged dismissal.

In this tense situation, it appears that Zelenskyy can only rely on his European allies. Today, on 1 February, EU leaders convened once again to determine €50 billion in aid for Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel announced on the social media platform X that the agreement had been reached. He stated that all 27 member states, including Hungary, had agreed to the funding, within the EU budget.

Viktor Orbán had vetoed the package last December, and since then, Hungary has faced unprecedented pressure. This is probably because the member states that have invested heavily—both financially and in military terms—in Ukraine, also perceived that Zelenskyy is running out of time. According to a leaked document earlier this week, Brussels reportedly planned to cut off all EU funds to the country and let the Hungarian economy suffer if faced with another Hungarian veto.

In the meantime, Ukraine has adopted a more positive approach towards Hungary in an effort to overcome the Hungarian veto. On Monday, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó held talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba in Uzhhorod, focusing on the rights of the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia. Kuleba gave an interview to Telex after the meeting,

where he stated that neither Viktor Orbán nor Péter Szijjártó are pro-Russian but rather pro-Hungarian.

Kuleba also said that he had a really deep conversation with the Hungarian FM about healing relations between the two country. These statements represent a significant shift in the Ukrainian officials’ views on the Hungarian government. In the months following the outbreak of the war, Zelenskyy repeatedly called on Viktor Orbán to take a firm stand between Ukraine and Russia. Earlier, in an interview, Kuleba stated that as long as Viktor Orbán remains the Prime Minister of Hungary, nothing will change in Ukrainian–Hungarian relations.

So, for the time being, the European Union appears to have come to the rescue of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The €50 billion in financial aid represents a significant political victory for the Ukrainian president, although it does not address all the domestic political challenges he faces. Open confrontation with the army chief is never a good omen, especially in wartime. A prime example is the Wagner rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, which began as a conflict ‘within the army’ (although the private military company was not officially under the Russian Ministry of Defence at the time), rather than a tension between the military and political leadership.

Zaluzhny is revered as a hero by the Ukrainian people, and they may not allow him to be replaced on what they perceive as trumped-up grounds. Whatever happens, one thing is almost certain: Zelenskyy’s endgame is coming, sooner rather than later.

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