Ukraine troops bristle at rumours of chief's possible firing

Most Ukrainian troops have enormous respect for army chief Valery Zaluzhny (Genya SAVILOV)
Most Ukrainian troops have enormous respect for army chief Valery Zaluzhny (Genya SAVILOV)

Ukraine's soldiers fighting on the frontlines have little patience for the rumours swirling in Kyiv that President Volodymyr Zelensky may soon fire their beloved army chief Valery Zaluzhny.

Most troops have enormous respect for the career military man, considering him a father figure.

Zaluzhny and Zelensky have reportedly been at loggerheads over how to boost numbers in the army, which is struggling to fill its ranks.

Zaluzhny has headed the Ukrainian armed forces since before Russia's invasion in February 2022.

His differences with Zelensky were thrust into the spotlight last year, when in an interview with The Economist, Zaluzhny said the war had ground to a stalemate, something that Zelensky publicly rejected.

Amid feverish speculation in the media, Zelensky this week said that he was preparing a massive reshuffle to "restart" the country's leadership, including in the armed forces, with the frontline static and Ukraine's highly anticipated counteroffensive last year largely failing to budge Russia's lines of defence.

On the frontlines in Ukraine's east, where Russia's army is relentlessly pressing against outmanned Ukrainian soldiers in several points, the exhausted troops have little patience for personnel clashes in Kyiv's halls of power.

"Replacing the commander during fighting, especially when they are so intense in our area, is not appropriate," an army medic with the callname "Beria" deployed in the Donetsk region told AFP.

"I would sooner replace the president," the 25-year-old said.

Another soldier, "Kit", said the rumours of Zaluzhny's firing irritated him, especially since Zelensky has never publicly said what Zaluzhny had done to displease him.

- 'A legend' -

Both men played key roles when Russia sent troops against an outmanned and outgunned Ukraine on February 22, 2022, when most of the world expected Moscow's military to easily roll over its smaller neighbour.

Zelensky became the public face of Ukrainian resistance, refusing to leave Kyiv as it was being bombed, churning out defiant video selfies and furiously working the phones gathering support and pledges of weapons from world leaders.

Meanwhile Zaluzhny was the force behind the scenes, overseeing a defence that managed -- against all odds and expectations -- to stand its ground against a Russian military that dwarfed Ukraine's in men and arms.

Zaluzhny "incarnates our invincibility, our victory," said "Kit", 50. "He is already an icon."

"If it's about changing military strategy, it's normal to also change the leadership. But it will be a pity if it's a purely political decision."

In the army "everyone considers Zaluzhny as a father", said "Cowboy", a 38-year-old soldier. "And everyone has a negative attitude toward the idea of replacing him."

Sergeant "Luntik" said the issue has been the topic of many conversations on the front and is damaging to morale at a time when Russia -- which still has superior troop and weapon numbers -- is relentlessly pushing its advance.

The rumours have led to "all sorts of conspiracy theories", he said.

"The more dangerous the situation of a unit, the more they speak of treason and conspiracies," said "Luntik", 50.

When Russia invaded in February 2022, Zaluzhny already had a solid reputation, as he had overseen the campaign against pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A good communicator "he was never too lazy to personally visit all the dangerous areas" to meet with troops deployed there and see for himself their positions, "Luntik" said.

"He is a professional who understands the real situation and not only what is shown on the map," he said.

"Zaluzhny has the most important -- confidence (of his troops). If a commander doesn't have confidence, even if he's a great professional, he won't achieve anything."

Despite their misgivings, the troops say they won't stop fighting even if their beloved leader is removed.

"Nothing will change. I will continue to carry out my tasks like I have until now," said Vitaly, a 32-year-old soldier.