President Volodymyr Zelensky conferred the Hero of Ukraine award, the highest national decoration in Ukraine, to former Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, according to a presidential decree from Feb. 8.
Zaluzhnyi received the award "for distinguished personal merits in the protection of state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and selfless service to the Ukrainian people."
He received the award together with the Order of the Gold Star, which is commonly granted to military personnel along with the title Hero of Ukraine. Over 800 people have been granted the title since it was created in 1998.
The Hero of Ukraine award with the Golden Star was also awarded to Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukraine's military intelligence agency (HUR), and to several other service people, including fallen defenders who received the award posthumously.
"We are all proud of every Ukrainian soldier! Ukraine will always be grateful to all of its soldiers, sergeants, officers, and generals who did everything to keep Ukraine alive," Zelensky said during the award ceremony.
"Ukraine will always remember all its people who gave their lives in the struggle for our independence."
The decision sparked emotional public debate, as Zaluzhnyi is widely popular with both the military and the population and is considered a hero due to his role in leading the resistance against Russia.
A December 2023 poll showed that Zaluzhnyi has a 92% trust rating, making him the country's most trusted military leader, and that an overwhelming majority (72%) of Ukrainians would disapprove of him being replaced.
Shortly before officially announcing the dismissal, Zelensky thanked Zaluzhnyi for his service in a Telegram post, adding that the ex-chief commander would remain a "part of the team."