Zaluzhny remains in his post for now, but a formal presidential decree is expected to confirm his ousting nearly two years into Russia’s invasion and as Moscow’s forces appear to be gaining strategic initiative on some parts of the front.
On Monday, Zelensky’s spokesman Serhiy Nykyforov denied that Zaluzhny had been fired. “There is no subject of conversation,” Nykyforov said in a comment to reporters, adding: “There is no order. The president did not dismiss the commander in chief.”
Nykyforov on Wednesday did not immediately reply to messages from The Washington Post seeking any updated comment.
A highly anticipated counteroffensive, using soldiers trained by NATO allies and Western weapons and equipment, reclaimed little territory, falling far short of expectations. Zaluzhny and his American counterparts disagreed sharply over tactics and the Ukrainian commander ultimately ignored U.S. advice to concentrate his forces, which he believed could have led to far higher casualties.
In their conversation Monday, Zelensky told Zaluzhny that Ukrainians have tired of war and the country’s international backers have also slowed military assistance, so perhaps a new commander would rejuvenate the situation, the person familiar with their conversation said.
Two individuals spoke about the meeting on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the highly sensitive situation with unpredictable implications for the war and Ukraine’s security. Senior members of Zaluzhny’s staff are also expected to be removed, one person said.
In Monday’s meeting, differences between the two boiled over because of disagreement about how many soldiers Ukraine needs to mobilize this year, according to the two people familiar with the exchange.
Zaluzhny proposed mobilizing close to 500,000, a figure Zelensky viewed as impractical given the scarcity of uniforms, guns and training facilities and potential challenges related to recruitment, the people said. Zelensky has also publicly said that Ukraine lacks the funds to pay so many new conscripts.
Zaluzhny countered that Ukraine is already short of forces due to mounting casualties and also needs to match 400,000 new soldiers that Russia plans to mobilize, one person familiar with the conversation said.
It was not immediately clear who will replace the 50-year-old Zaluzhny. One leading candidate is Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, 38-year-old Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, potentially signaling a move toward asymmetric tactics in a war where the front lines have seen little change in more than a year. But Budanov, with a history in special forces, does not have experience as an army commander.
Another option is Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, who was credited with leading the defense of Kyiv in the first month of the war and then orchestrating a successful counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region in fall 2022.
Zaluzhny was offered another post but declined and plans to retire from the military, according to the senior official. Reached by The Post, Zaluzhny declined to comment.
For now, he remains in the top job and the formal order dismissing him could be delayed. Last year, the head of Zelensky’s faction in parliament announced that Oleksii Reznikov, then the defense minister, would be ousted, but Reznikov stayed in the post for months before being removed.
Friction between Zelensky and Zaluzhny has been brewing for months, and the general has expected he could be dismissed since summer 2022, the person said.
Zaluzhny has been Ukraine’s commander in chief since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, and, according to opinion polls, rivals Zelensky in popularity, making him a potential political threat if presidential elections were to take place. Elections are currently barred in Ukraine because of martial law but under normal conditions should have taken place this year.
Though Ukrainian officials privately have hinted at distrust between Zaluzhny and Zelensky over the past year, the discord has spilled into open view in recent months. Last fall Zaluzhny referred to the war as a “stalemate” in an interview with The Economist. Zelensky publicly rebuked those remarks.
Another source of tension has been the gap between what Zaluzhny has requested for Ukraine’s military and what Kyiv’s political leaders have been able to draw from allies and partners, a second person familiar with the Monday meeting said. “He says in conversations with the minister of defense: ‘It’s not my job to get this; it’s your job,’” the person said.
Proposed aid for Ukraine has stalled in Washington and Brussels because of internal political disputes in the United States and the European Union.
House Republicans have blocked a White House request for an additional $60 billion related to the war in Ukraine.
Hudson reported from Washington. David L. Stern contributed to this report.