The head of the Ukrainian People's Army, Valery Zalozny, was summoned to a meeting in the president's office on Monday and informed of his dismissal, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN, after weeks of growing speculation about tensions between Volodymyr Zelensky and his top commander.
No formal announcement has been made, meaning Zalozny was still in office as of Wednesday evening. However, a presidential decree is expected by the end of the week, one source told CNN, in what would be Zelensky's biggest military shakeup. Since the beginning The Russian invasion is widespread Almost two years ago.
Rumors of the meeting and Zalozny's dismissal spread throughout Kiev on Monday evening, lending credence to a rift widely understood to have occurred between the president and his commander-in-chief after the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year.
01:26- Source: CNN
This is how the Ukrainian and Russian armies compare on the battlefield now
Tensions are said to have particularly escalated when Zalozny described the war with Russia as a stalemate, in an interview and article with The Economist magazine In November.
Presidential spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov told CNN and others on Monday that rumors about the army chief's dismissal were untrue. The Ministry of Defense also published a message on social media channels that said: “Dear journalists, the immediate response to everyone: No, this is not true.”
In his daily evening speech on Monday, Zelensky himself made no mention at all of his army chief.
But according to one source, the president announced, at a small gathering in his office on Monday — also attended by Defense Minister Rustam Umarov — that he had “made the decision to dismiss the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.” The calculation is consistent with other reports, including… Washington Post And the Financial Times.
In a conversation described as “calm”, Zelenskyy then proceeded to offer Zalozny a different position, which Zalozny rejected.
The Ukrainian president then confirmed his decision, saying that the fact that Zalozhny rejected the new position does not change the fact that he was dismissed from his current position.
CNN reached out to the president's office on Wednesday to request further comment but did not receive a response.
One source, a senior military commander, told CNN that two names in particular are being discussed as potential successors.
One of them is the current head of the Defense Intelligence Directorate, Kirilo Budanov, a 38-year-old general known for his strong ties to Zelensky and seen as representing a new generation of military leaders.
When asked by CNN in an interview on Tuesday if he was set to become Ukraine's new supreme leader, Budanov declined, suggesting he was unlikely to speak to CNN at that moment if that appointment had just been made.
The head of military intelligence added: “We are in a war, and all parties are using all available means, including information warfare.”
The senior military commander who spoke to CNN said that the most likely candidate is Oleksandr Sirsky, currently the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces.
Sirsky's office did not respond to CNN's attempt to reach him.
Although Ukraine's counteroffensive failed to achieve any tangible progress in defeating Russian forces in the south and east of the country, Zalozny remains one of the country's most popular leaders.
A poll published by the Kiev Institute of Sociology in December showed that 88% of Ukrainians support the supreme leader. Zelensky's approval rating, although also high, was much lower at 62%.
The poll was conducted after differences between the two leaders appeared to come to light over whether to continue the war.
“Just as in World War I, we have reached a level of technology that puts us at a stalemate,” Zalozny wrote in The Economist in November when it became clear that Russia’s deep minefields and overwhelming heavy artillery fire had greatly affected On Russia. It prevented Ukraine from achieving significant success in the counterattack.
The army commander added: “Most likely there will not be a deep and beautiful penetration,” but rather there will be a balance between devastating losses and destruction.
These comments sparked immediate criticism from the president's office.
“If I were in the army, the last thing I would do is comment to the press, to the public, on what is happening on the front.” [and] “What could happen on the front… because we will facilitate the work of the aggressor,” Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the president’s office, told Ukrainian television at the time.
Zelensky has not publicly criticized Zalozny, but said in a live press conference in December: “I am waiting for very concrete things on the battlefield. The strategy is clear: we have an understanding of our actions. I want to see the details.”
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Ukraine's counteroffensive in June was its main attempt to dislodge Russian forces from territory it has occupied since 2022, especially in the south of the country. Ukraine aimed to advance south from the town of Orikiv towards the Sea of Azov, which would divide Russian forces in two and cut off their land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula.
But Ukraine's gains have been modest. Its forces attempted to advance from Orekiv towards Tokmak, but only reached Robotyn, just over 20 kilometers (12.4 mi) south.
The lack of progress in Ukraine led to its armed forces calling at the end of December for a massive effort to mobilize up to half a million new recruits. The request is currently before Parliament.
A soldier contacted by CNN who is currently fighting around Avdiivka in the east said any decision to dismiss Zalozny was a mistake.
“He is a worthy general. Our government wants to overthrow him because he is not suitable for them,” the soldier said, adding: “It seems that Zelensky’s men sold out to us a long time ago.”
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