Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Zelensky’s rivalry with Zaluzhny spells bad news for Ukraine

Photo-illustration: Lukas Degutis (Getty/iStock)

Is he out or not? After a night of claim, counter-claim, rumour and speculation, it appears that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has decided not to dismiss his commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny. Tension, however, clearly remains between the two – and this is bad news for Ukraine.

Ukrainian news outlets were the first to begin claiming that General Zaluzhny had either been dismissed or was about to be. Insider sources contacted by well-connected Western journalists were, on balance, also apparently confirming rather than denying the claims. Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleksy Goncharenko asserted that Zaluzhny had resigned and had refused the offer of an ambassadorial position in Europe. Quickly, though, the pendulum of reporting swung the other way, and as of this morning it was clear that Zaluzhny was still in position. As the defence ministry’s press office posted on Telegram: ‘Dear journalists, we’re answering everyone at once: no, this is not true.’

The first real bone of contention between the two was the plan for last year’s counter-offensive

So was this just an example of how, in the fervid modern social media environment, a baseless rumour can spread like proverbial wildfire? Not quite: there does seem to be something here. It is worth noting the specific language Zelensky’s spokesman used: ‘The President didn’t dismiss Zaluzhny.’ Those sources who claimed that there had been a presidential decree replacing Zaluzhny but yet to be signed, perhaps awaiting consultations with Western backers, may well prove to have been accurate. A highly-placed European diplomat working on the Ukraine issue messaged me last night in horror and bewilderment, saying that their embassy in Kyiv had been sounded out yesterday about a military reshuffle. This morning they reported that ‘Bankova’ – slang for the presidential administration, whose offices are on the street of that name – ‘seems to have regained its senses. What were they thinking?’

If there had been serious intent to dismiss Zaluzhny, the intensity of last night’s social media storm and the pitch of dismay will have provided a whole barrage of warning shots.

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