Home » Valery Zaluzhny: How Zelensky’s relationship with the ‘Iron General’ broke down

Valery Zaluzhny: How Zelensky’s relationship with the ‘Iron General’ broke down

Only once the Russians were almost at Kyiv’s door – with their supply lines overstretched – did his forces strike in full, using artillery, Western-supplied anti-tank missiles, and territorial defence militias encouraged to improvise their own methods of attack.

It was anything but Soviet textbook doctrine – and as such, the invaders had no answer to it. Or, to quote Gen Zaluzhny: “Military theory does not account for regular dudes with track pants and hunting rifles.”

Despite that early success, Gen Zaluzhny – a 6ft man-mountain who towers over his boss – had a low profile during the war’s first months, spending most of his time in a Kyiv bunker 70 metres underground. His HQ was separate from that of the president – who, by all accounts, deferred to his judgment on military matters.

The pair first met just after Mr Zelensky’s election in 2019, when Gen Zaluzhny, who studied at military academy in Odesa, briefed the incoming president on the already-simmering separatist conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas.

Once appointed, the general accelerated Ukraine’s embrace of Western military doctrine, abandoning old top-down command structures. Troops in the Donbas were authorised to respond more robustly to separatist provocation – a policy that may have influenced Putin’s decision to invade.

As a moderniser who has championed the lower ranks, Gen Zaluzhny has garnered huge popularity among the ordinary soldiers in his command. He regularly attends military funerals and was photographed officiating at the wedding of a serviceman during a lull in fighting.

Victim of his own success

Disagreements with Mr Zelensky first began in the summer of 2022, when the president overruled him by insisting that Ukraine mount a counter-offensive in the north-east around Kharkiv, rather than south towards Crimea. While that offensive reclaimed thousands of square miles of territory, the general is thought to have felt its gains were cosmetic rather than strategic.

Ultimately, though, he may simply have been a victim of his own success. According to polls, he is the one person in Ukraine more popular than Mr Zelensky. In the past year, the president has come to regard him as a potential rival for power, and while the general has insisted his priority is winning the war, he has not ruled out a future presidential run.

Matters came to a head last November, when Gen Zaluzhny told The Economist that the war was at a “stalemate”, unless some innovation in technology handed one side or other the upper hand. What appeared to be simply a sombre battlefield assessment earned a rare public rebuke from Mr Zelensky’s office.

Since then, tensions have also emerged over Gen Zaluzhny’s plans for a mass-mobilisation, while the perceived failure of the summer counter-offensive has undermined his reputation.

How big a loss he will be remains to be seen. It is not unknown for generals to be reshuffled in wartime, as evolving battlefield challenges demand fresh thinking. But his departure is likely to dismay rank-and-file soldiers, whose morale is already waning as the war nears its third year.

Gen Zaluzhny had also forged a close working relationship with senior generals in the US. Whoever his successor is will have to earn the confidence of Washington afresh at a crucial juncture in American politics ahead of the upcoming election.

But for Mr Zelensky, the biggest risk may be that relieving the “Iron General” of his command could hasten his entry into politics and offer the first real challenge to the president’s leadership since the war began – no laughing matter, even for a comedian.