Editor's Note: This story initially mistakenly said that President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi haven't been seen together in public in two months. It was corrected since the two were seen together in public more recently.
After successfully taking Ukraine through the initial stages of the all-out war, President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi found themselves the country’s two most popular – and arguably, most important – people.
And lately, they appear to be at the center of the country’s most important conflict.
What started as rumors soon poured out as a stream of reports in major publications in Ukraine and abroad. The stories centered around the same point: Ukraine’s president wasn’t getting along with his commander-in-chief.
The two keep silent about the tensions, letting those around them voice taciturn denials or blame Russian disinformation.
And yet, a slew of unambiguous signals point to the disagreement between the two.
They openly disagree on the state of the war. Zaluzhnyi’s “stalemate” comment in the Economist contradicted Zelensky’s uncompromising public stance.
Even more importantly, Zaluzhnyi is a political threat. Political support polls – produced for internal use but recently leaked to the public – list Zaluzhnyi as the only potential candidate to even come close to taking over Zelensky.
All of this is taking place with two major factors in the backdrop: Ukraine’s unsuccessful counteroffensive and Zelensky’s presidential term ending next year. While elections are technically postponed due to martial law, their possibility hangs in the air.
The discord between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi adds to the uncertainty of the coming year and risks undermining the country’s unity. But it also may not be as heated and nearing a breaking point as it may seem from the headlines.
War meets politics
“Ukrainian Eisenhower” has been a popular sobriquet among the fans of Ukraine’s commander-in-chief.
The duality of the meaning is hard to overlook. Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t just a successful military commander, but a commander-turned-president.
Zelensky’s office hasn’t missed the hint.
The rise of Zaluzhnyi’s star in the first months of the full-scale invasion interrupted Zelensky’s long honeymoon as Ukraine’s unchallenged political leader. Since his landslide victory in the 2019 elections, Ukraine’s president has never had a real political rival. Even as his ratings decreased after the first year, he still enjoyed enough support to easily win a second term over any possible candidate.
The beginning of the full-scale invasion propelled Zelensky’s support to the skies. It also brought a potential rival.
An early victory near Kyiv, followed by campaigns in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts in the fall of 2022 bolstered the personal popularity of the head of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, 50-year-old General Zaluzhnyi.
Rumors of Zelensky’s office being concerned with Zaluzhnyi’s popularity have circulated in Ukrainian media since summer 2022.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Zaluzhnyi has never said he was seeking a political career.
Zelensky isn’t waiting for public confirmation. In November, he warned that the military and politics shouldn’t be mixed.
"If a military man decided to do politics, it is his right, then he should enter politics, and then he can't deal with war," Zelensky told the Sun. It was the closest that either one of the two men came to commenting on their alleged rivalry.
“If you manage war keeping in mind that tomorrow you will do politics or elections, then in your words and on the front line you behave as a politician and not as a military man, and I think that is a huge mistake,” Zelensky told the Sun.
Around the same time, the Kyiv Independent saw a political poll, allegedly commissioned by Zelensky’s office for internal use.
The poll measured the support of Zelensky and a dozen other potential candidates if they were to run for president now.
According to the numbers, Zelensky would come a little short of winning in one round, getting 47% of the votes, while Zaluzhnyi would get 30%. The third best-performing candidate in the poll would get just under 5%.
The same poll suggests that Zelensky would beat Zaluzhnyi in the run-off by 2%, which is within the margin of error.
Moreover, if parliamentary elections were held together with presidential ones, a hypothetical political party led by Zaluzhnyi would beat a party endorsed by Zelensky. The president’s current party, Servant of the People, is considerably less popular than the president himself, due to its history of scandals and corruption allegations.
Soon after the Kyiv Independent saw the poll, it was leaked online by a popular pro-Zelensky Telegram channel. However, the leaked version included only the first-round graph, leaving out the more concerning run-off part.
The survey, which asked 2,000 people, was conducted by one of Ukraine’s top pollsters, the Rating Group. Its director refused to comment on the leaked poll.
When asked to comment on the polls’ origin, two representatives of the President’s Office – Zelensky’s spokesman and an advisor to the head of the office – told the Kyiv Independent they “haven’t heard” of such polls.
For now, any polls are theoretical. Ukraine has shelved the presidential election scheduled for March 2024. The country's constitution prohibits a vote during martial law – which has been in effect since the day Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
It puts Zelensky in an uncomfortable position. Replacing the commander can create a political rival that can nick his second term, should he seek one.
Politically, for Zelensky, “it’s a stalemate,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst.
Ironically, “stalemate” is exactly the word that aggravated the disagreements between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi.
Arguing over ‘stalemate’
Zelensky has made it clear he doesn’t think that the war is at a stalemate.
His top commander disagrees. He was the first Ukrainian to introduce the word to international audiences — and is paying the price for it at home.
In a rare interview with the Economist, Zaluzhnyi offered a gloomy view of the state of the war, including a reference to the current situation as a "stalemate.” He also said that Ukraine must escape the "trap" of prolonged war.
The general then laid out what Ukraine needs from the West to escape a long war. It included helping the Ukrainian military acquire greater air power, improve anti-drone electronic warfare, and defeating Russian artillery, among other needs.
But it was the “stalemate” remark that set the tone.
The grim reference contradicted the public stance of Zelensky and his administration, who has focused on Ukraine’s victories and tried to bolster the confidence of Ukrainians and allies. (In a recent piece by the Financial Times, Zelensky’s former and current advisors argued that the lack of realism in Zelensky’s speeches is achieving the opposite results.)
Zelensky soon publicly disagreed with Zaluzhnyi’s assessment.
"Everyone gets tired, no matter their status. And we have different opinions. But it’s not a stalemate,” he said during a briefing on Nov. 4, when asked about Zaluzhnyi’s interview.
Zelensky added that the offensive operations slowed down because Ukraine was waiting for the promised F-16 fighter jets.
“Russia has air superiority, and we won’t be throwing our men there like meat like Russia does to their soldiers,” he added.
One deputy head of Zelensky’s office went further and said that Zaluzhnyi’s comments were helping Russia.
While the disagreement appears to be too old for one comment to make a big difference, it’s unclear how precise was Zelensky’s understanding of Zaluzhnyi’s divisive “stalemate” statement.
According to a report by The Hill, during a recent meeting with U.S. senators, conducted in English, Zelensky didn’t know the meaning of the word “stalemate” – the cornerstone of Zaluzhnyi’s interview.
In Ukrainian and Russian, the two languages Zelensky speaks fluently, “stalemate” doesn’t have an exact translation, and can be relayed as a negatively-colored “dead end,” or as a neutral word from the vocabulary of a chess player, pat.
It’s not clear whether Zaluzhnyi’s interview was conducted in English, and if not, what word the general used to describe the state of the war.
In the U.S., Zaluzhnyi's comments reportedly prompted Republicans' argument in Congress on reconsidering aid to Ukraine. However, the White House has said it remains committed to supporting Kyiv.
"I think (Zaluzhnyi's statements) underscore how important it is that we continue to support Ukraine," U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.
Soon, lawmakers from Zelensky’s party tuned in.
David Arakhamia, the party’s faction leader, claimed that the military doesn’t have a plan when it comes to the necessary mobilization of new recruits and demobilization of those who have served for a long time.
“We tell the military commanders: What’s your vision? And they don’t have one,” Arakhamia said on TV. “Their vision is — let’s keep living like we do. And we’re not ok with it.”
Immediately after it, Mariana Bezuhla, a lawmaker with Zelensky’s party, lashed out at Zaluzhnyi on social media, claiming he “didn’t have a plan” for the next year. Bezuhla and Arakhamia are members of the parliament’s defense committee.
Bezuhla’s critics have argued that the General Staff doesn’t owe lawmakers a plan. She has continued to criticize Zaluzhnyi on a daily basis, and demanded his dismissal. The party’s press service told Ukrainska Pravda that Bezuhla doesn’t speak for the whole party.
This wasn’t necessarily an effort coordinated by Zelensky’s office.
“Arakhamia and Bezuhla sensed the critical atmosphere within the President's Office and transmitted it to the public,” said Fesenko, a political analyst.
Approving reactions to Zaluzhnyi’s interview on Ukrainian social media and from Zelensky’s political opponents may have contributed to the President’s Office’s concerns, according to Fesenko. Lawmakers from ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s party, as well as Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko have publicly backed Zaluzhnyi.
“I think someone in the office may have concluded that Zaluzhnyi was involved (in getting support from Klitschko and Poroshenko). The President's Office took a natural critical stance. It would be odd if it hadn't,” Fesenko said.
Dismissing the extremely popular Zaluzhnyi isn’t a likely option for Zelensky.
While Zelensky disapproves of Zaluzhnyi's autonomous media appearances, axing the popular commander-in-chief would risk weakening the nation’s unity in times of war, believes Fesenko, a political analyst.
"The majority (of Ukrainians) simultaneously trust both Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi... It's like asking a child during a divorce whom they support more, mom or dad," Fesenko told the Kyiv Independent.
Zelensky has, however, replaced some of Zaluzhnyi’s top subordinates – and apparently learned to circumvent the commander-in-chief when talking to the military.
Two days after the article in the Economist was published, Special Operations Forces commander Viktor Khorenko, Zaluzhnyi's deputy, was dismissed.
According to Khorenko, Zaluzhnyi told him he didn't request his firing. Instead, the firing was requested by Ukraine's Defense Ministry – specifically, by the recently appointed minister, Rustem Umerov.
Zelensky recently replaced Medical Forces Commander Tetiana Ostashchenko. As of a month ago, the talks were reportedly underway to dismiss Joint Forces Commander Serhii Naiev and Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, who command troops on the southern front line.
Ukrainska Pravda reported, citing multiple sources, that Zelensky is allegedly "bypassing" Zaluzhnyi in communication with some military commanders, such as Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi or Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk.
"Many (commanders) report directly (to the president) so he promptly receives the necessary information," a source in the Air Force told the Kyiv Independent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.
"If the (Air Force) commander gets a call (from the president), it's clear that he will respond," the source added.
Valerii Riabykh, an expert with Defense Express consulting company, said сommanders can issue orders to subordinates, bypassing their direct superiors. As the president, Zelensky is Ukraine’s supreme commander-in-chief.
"These are normal working relationships. It's not a problem if all these elements are part of a single chain of command," Riabykh told the Kyiv Independent, citing military protocols.
"(But) regardless of how communication (between the commander and subordinate) occurs, it should be clear to the entire chain."
Zelensky addressed the issue of subordination in his interview with the Sun, published on Nov. 20.
"With all the respect to General Zaluzhnyi and to all the commanders who are on the battlefield, there is an absolute understanding of the hierarchy, and that is it, and there can't be two, three, four, five," he said.
Over a month down the line from Zaluzhnyi's divisive interview in the Economist, the tension seems to be easing, at least publicly.
A sign of it came on Dec. 12, when Defense Minister Rustem Umerov posted photos of him and Zaluzhnyi together, decorating soldiers on the Ground Forces Day, a professional military holiday.
The third person in the all-smiles photos was Oleksandr Syrskyi, the ground forces commander. Syrskyi is one of the commanders Zelensky reportedly communicated with, bypassing Zaluzhnyi.
“The efforts to end this ‘psychological’ crisis and restore normal work are underway,” believes Fesenko. “The joint photo of Zaluznhyi alongside Umerov and Syrskyi is meant as a signal to the society that there is no conflict.”
It’s unclear whether Umerov, who was appointed three months ago, is tasked with cushioning the discord between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi. He has acted in a similar role once before. When one of Zaluzhnyi’s top commanders, Khorenko, was fired in early November, Umerov said it was he who requested the firing.
Following the photo op, the military said that Zaluzhnyi’s General Staff and Umerov’s Defense Ministry are developing a joint action plan, sending another signal of easing tensions.
Moreover, on the same day, Umerov dismissed any claims that the country's two highest military commanders, Zaluzhnyi and Naiev, were on the verge of being dismissed.
"There is no such issue," Umerov told a joint briefing with his Latvian colleague, adding that the rotations of positions are normal for military operations.
“This idea is being artificially promoted both inside and outside Ukraine,” he added.