Is Zelenskyy planning to fire Ukraine’s popular top army commander?

Rumours and allegations have swirled in recent weeks over the dismissal of Valerii Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s army chief.

Last week, several lawmakers and insiders claimed the taciturn and immensely popular 50-year-old four-star general was dismissed and set to lead Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to fire him in early December after Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv, the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported, citing an unnamed source.

But on Monday, Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said: “This is not true.”

Even though the ministry does not hold sway over Zaluzhny, in the case of a potential firing, it would have to submit a “recommendation” for his dismissal to Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s nominal commander-in-chief.

“There’s nothing to talk about. There was no dismissal. I have nothing to add,” Zelenskyy’s spokesperson Serhiy Nikiforov said in televised remarks on Monday.

But several observers have doubts.

But the dismissal “is a matter of time and circumstances”, he said.

There is “psychological tension” between Zaluzhny and the president, who remains dissatisfied with the failures of last year’s counterattack, Fesenko said.

Several counterstrikes in late 2022 liberated almost half of Russia-occupied areas and assured the Ukrainian public that the 2023 summer campaign in the east and south would succeed. But Russia used a lull in hostilities to build multilayer defence installations along the 1,000km-long (621-mile) front line and deployed hundreds of thousands of newly mobilised servicemen to man them.

Zaluzhny’s months-long counterattack morphed into a World War I-like trench war as his forces gained, lost and regained tiny patches of land amid harrowing losses of soldiers and Western-supplied weaponry.

Even the failed mutiny and disbandment of the Wagner mercenary group, which spearheaded Russia’s advance, didn’t help the Ukrainian counterattacks.

The failure was variously blamed on Zaluzhny’s tactical mistakes and delays in the supply of Western weaponry such as fighter jets and missiles.

As Zaluzhny has not come up with a new action plan for 2024, Zelenskyy has occasionally bypassed him in managing the armed forces, Fesenko said.

But Zaluzhny’s authority among the top brass and servicemen remains sky high.

In early 2022, as Ukrainian politicians were adamant that Russian President Vladimir Putin was bluffing and would not dare invade, Zaluzhny, who has headed the armed forces since July 2021, worked hard to prepare.

“In the political sphere, there were different views, but the military with him at the helm tried hard to get ready, and he demonstrated success,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, told Al Jazeera.

Once a little-known figure, Zaluzhny rarely speaks to the press and shuns publicity. He is by far the most trusted person in wartime Ukraine.

He is more popular than Zelenskyy – an astronomical 88 percent of Ukrainians trust him, a recent poll found, while 62 percent trust the president.

Seventy-two percent said they are against his dismissal while 2 percent would support it, according to the survey by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute conducted in early December.

But popularity won’t necessarily translate into political success.

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