What’s Wrong With General Zaluzhny’s Dismissal?
February 22, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
Journalist Alexander Golts reflects on why Ukrainian President Zelensky decided to dismiss his highly popular top commander, Valery Zaluzhny, drawing parallels with the firing of General Douglas MacArthur in the middle of the 20th century.
General Valery Zaluzhny. Source: Wiki Commons
After several weeks (if not months) of behind-the-scenes intrigues and vague public statements – made not only by important Kyiv officials but also high-ranking representatives of foreign countries – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the commander of the armed forces, General Valery Zaluzhny.

It is no surprise that the news caused a big stir in Ukraine and beyond. For two years, Zaluzhny had been associated with the amazing successes of the Ukrainian army in 2022, as well as its significant failures in 2023 – essentially the entire course of Ukraine’s successful defense against a much larger and militarily stronger country.

Zaluzhny as an outstanding commander

It is no exaggeration to say that in the eyes of millions of Ukrainians, Zaluzhny, whose popularity exceeds that of the president, personified hope for victory. He enjoyed widespread authority among the troops and had a reputation as a military leader who valued the lives of those under his command and took care of them.

Finally, Zaluzhny can rightfully be considered a serious military analyst. He not only understood, but also very accurately explained, the difference in the command systems of Russia and Ukraine, reflected in the ineffectiveness of the former: “the Soviet Army [welcomes] and [enforces] one concept: the commander. But being a commander and being a leader is not the same. With all due respect to Mr Surovikin… if you look at him, he is an ordinary Petrovite commander from Peter the Great’s time, shall we say, a Derzhimorda [the brutal martinet in Gogol’s The Government Inspector]. You look at him and understand that either you complete the task or you’re fucked. And we had long realized that this does not work... Of course, we had our own derzhimordas who tried to keep order with their fists and biceps, but it does not work 100% in the Ukrainian army... It is always possible to be normal... to remain human in any situation – that is the most important thing. To remain human, to become a leader. To be smarter, to be stronger, to be more talented and in that case try to manage people. That is the religion I practiced.”

Zaluzhny was one of the first to see the strategic stalemate in the Russia-Ukraine war. He was not afraid to state this publicly, shocking many Ukrainian politicians. Moreover, Zaluzhny, judging by what he has written, seriously thought about ways out of the stalemate: “new operations might include digital field creation, radio-electronic environment control, or a combined operation using attack drones and cyber assets. Such operations will be coordinated and conducted under a single concept and plan. Crucially, the aim will not always be solely combat in focus. It might seek to reduce the economic capabilities of the enemy, or to isolate, or wear him down. Attack operations can have psychological objectives.”

Overall, Zaluzhny is an outstanding military leader, and his departure is a significant loss for the Ukrainian army. At the same time, I do not take seriously the explanation that it was due to the fact that Zelensky was jealous of Zaluzhny’s popularity and feared that the general could become a rival in elections. After all, Zelensky has consistently demonstrated a rational approach and an ability to resist emotions during the two-year confrontation with Russia. Moreover, with the war going on, the prospects for a presidential election look, to put it mildly, dubious.

What is the reason for Zaluzhny’s departure?

Much more important is the speculation that Zelensky was getting increasingly irritated at Zaluzhny for allegedly ignoring his orders. Zaluzhny’s statements about the strategic impasse were in clear contradiction with the public position of the country’s political leadership that the announced counteroffensive, despite everything, was continuing.

Moreover, when planning for the counteroffensive in 2023, the general, according to some media reports, strongly objected to American advisers who recommended concentrating all Ukrainian forces to break through the Russian defense in one direction. Instead, Zaluzhny tried to carry out several offensive operations in different directions, which led to criticism for scattering his forces.
When the counteroffensive failed to achieve its goals, Zaluzhny, with his demonstrative independence, became an obvious candidate for the role of scapegoat.
It seems to me that the basis of Zaluzhny’s position was that he could not help but take into account Ukraine’s main problem on the battlefield – the lack of large reserves, primarily in terms of men. That is why he was so cautious about the 2023 strategic offensive.

Zaluzhny understood that if he tried to break through the defensive line in one specific area, the enemy, who has much larger reserves, would transfer them to head off the concentrated Ukrainian attack. Thus, Zaluzhny risked depleting the brigades that it had taken such effort to train and equip. And he would be left with no strength to keep up the offensive.
Avdiivka, October 10, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Instead, Zaluzhny began to test the Russian defense in several areas at once, thereby preventing the enemy from maneuvering reserves. But this strategy, as we know, did not bear fruit. There were still not enough troops. The correctness of Zaluzhny’s conclusions about the strategic impasse was confirmed in a statement by his successor, General Oleksandr Syrsky. Having become commander, he announced that Ukrainian troops were moving to strategic defense. And he got out of Avdiivka, which, based solely on military logic, should have been left a month before.

The dismissal of Zaluzhny is not at all a unique case in world military history. US President Harry Truman in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, dismissed the commander of the US armed forces in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, a famous and extremely popular military leader. The general had a record of victories against the Japanese in World War II, including the capture of the Philippines. Leaving the islands in 1941, he promised “I shall return,” and he did in 1944. MacArthur oversaw the occupation and demilitarization of Japan. Under his leadership, the Japanese Constitution was written, ensuring the peaceful development of the country for the better part of a century.

In the Korean War, MacArthur was also responsible for the truly ingenious plan and implementation of the landing at Incheon. This maneuver made it possible to encircle a large part of the invading North Korean army and then liberate South Korean territory.

But then problems arose. The Truman administration, fearful of China’s direct entry into the war, was clearly hesitant about whether UN troops, led by MacArthur, should cross the 38th parallel and occupy North Korea. MacArthur convinced Truman that Chinese intervention was unlikely.
When China finally entered the war and inflicted several major defeats on US troops, MacArthur began to demand permission to use nuclear weapons.
General MacArthur signing the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Allied Powers. September 1945. Source: Wiki Commons
Moreover, he insisted that the final decision on the use of nuclear weapons should belong to him, not to the president. Some of MacArthur’s ideas were fanciful: for example, dispersing radioactive materials along the border with Manchuria to deter a Chinese invasion for years.

MacArthur and Zaluzhny: Generals who defied their commanders in chief

MacArthur repeatedly demonstrated open disregard for Truman’s orders, which were given to him directly, through the Department of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The last straw came on March 24, 1951, when, after repelling the Chinese offensive, the general gave the order to cross the 38th parallel for the second time, violating the president’s directive.

Meanwhile, MacArthur began to pursue his own foreign policy, which was fundamentally at odds with Truman’s. Contrary to the White House’s intention to begin peace negotiations, the general proposed demanding an immediate surrender from the Chinese leadership. He notified Congress of his disagreement with the president. Moreover, while in Tokyo, he conducted negotiations with Spanish and Portuguese diplomats.

Truman, though aware of the problems that would arise from dismissing a national hero, refused to tolerate MacArthur’s willfulness. As a result, on April 10, 1951, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued an order removing the general from command. Americans’ outrage knew no bounds. Returning to the States, MacArthur was greeted by throngs of admirers. The Senate undertook a special investigation into the circumstances of his dismissal and issued a verdict that is quoted in textbooks to this day: “the removal of General MacArthur was within the constitutional powers of thePresident but the circumstances were a shock to national pride.”

Zaluzhny could not fulfill the president’s demand to continue the offensive, while MacArthur, on the contrary, did not want to stop the advance of his troops, as ordered by the head of state.
Yet for all the differences in the two generals’ stories, they are special cases of contradictions that are inherent in the relationship between the military and political leaderships.
Civil-military friction

In order to defend itself, even the most democratic state is doomed to tolerate a completely undemocratic institution – the armed forces. The army is built on the principles of unity of command and the unconditional execution of orders within the command hierarchy. In essence, only by demanding complete submission to the commander can a soldier be forced to do something contrary to human nature: kill and be ready to be killed. However, an army that follows the principle of unity of command poses a threat to the state it is called upon to protect. Simply because it has weapons and can impose its will on the country, a will that from time to time is diametrically opposed to the intentions of elected civilian rulers.

The system of civilian control, which is the basis of civil-military relations, is designed to resolve this contradiction. It is based on the obligation of the military, under all circumstances, to carry out the orders and instructions of civilian leaders. Violation of this regime represents one of the gravest war crimes. It would seem that everything is so simple, and all the wisdom of civil-military relations can basically be expressed in one phrase. However, there are reams of literature on this issue. The fact is that the relationship between military and civilian leaders, even with the obligatory subordination of the former to the latter, represents a complex balance, depending both on specific circumstances and on the character of individuals.

For the military, the key factor is the desire for complete victory on the battlefield during war and the best preparation of troops for such a victory in peacetime. To do this, the military leader is entitled to expect that the political leader will sign off on his plans for waging war and provide the necessary resources – human and material.

Politicians have different goals. They need voters to vote for them; they are directly dependent on public opinion. Of course, they also want victory on the battlefield. But victories require sacrifices – human ones, first and foremost. Losses do not boost popularity. In addition, winning requires fiscal expenditures, which leads to cuts in social spending, which voters may not like. Finally, there may be both domestic and foreign policy considerations that prevent the military from operating with maximum effectiveness. One can recall the policy of “escalation” during the Vietnam War, when, contrary to the demands of the military command, the increase in the number of American troops was extremely slow. Due to political considerations, first President Lyndon Johnson and then President Richard Nixon would not give the generals as many troops as they believed they needed to win.

To win, Zaluzhny needed more troops. Only a new mobilization can provide them, meaning new, extremely unpopular laws.
Having realized this, Zelensky did not want to take responsibility for either a new mobilization or the fact that the Ukrainian authorities could not fulfill their promises of an imminent victory.
But Zaluzhny was in no hurry to take responsibility and denied that it was the military who wrote the unpopular law on mobilization.

MacArthur saw the shortest path to military victory in defeating the Chinese forces as quickly as possible and therefore insisted on a rapid offensive. Washington feared that such an offensive would turn into a new world war, in which nuclear weapons would most likely be used. Although for different reasons than in the Zelensky-Zaluzhny clash, the basis of the standoff between Truman and MacArthur was the inability of the highest executive power to satisfy the demands of the military leader.

In such a clash, it is extremely important that the civilian authorities openly state their motives. Neither Zelensky nor Truman wanted to do this (for various reasons). Although both presidents had the right to dismiss their top commander, neither was able to control friction with the military. This cost Truman his presidency, as outraged Americans voted for Eisenhower in the next election in 1952.

The consequences of Zelensky’s decision remain unclear. We only know that Zaluzhny’s dismissal resulted in a change at the top of the country’s military leadership, including within the General Staff. It is unlikely that what happened will strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces and the unity of Ukrainian society. The problem is not that the president fired his top general, but that he did so without providing the public with true and persuasive reasons.
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