“A small mistake” – this is how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy explained his recent disagreement with the country’s army leadership. It’s the first disagreement to draw public attention since not even Feb. 24, when the Russian army invaded, but since July 27 of last year, when Valeriy Zaluzhny, now a general, was appointed a commander of Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The “mistake” was soon fixed. It had to do with special war-time rules that were supposed to restrict domestic travel by Ukrainian citizens who are obliged by the law to serve in the army.
Zaluzhny didn’t want to contradict the nation’s leader on this and spend more time on something that is secondary to his main duty – fighting the Russian invaders.
Zaluzhny, 49, has been leading the fight against Russia quite successfully, not allowing himself any serious interruptions. Since the war started, he hasn’t given a single interview for the media, but managed to push back the Russian army all the way from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.
The liberation of northern Ukraine is definitely his personal accomplishment. This put him in a list of the world’s 100 most influential people that U.S. magazine Time draws up annually. President Zelenskyy, who is constitutionally the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, gave Zaluzhny a special insignia – the Cross of Military Merit – in early May.
“Zaluzhny was just in the right place at the right time,” says Anatoliy Oktysyuk, an analyst with Democracy House, a center for political expertise in Kyiv. He says, the Armed Forces’ commander has all the skills he needs to meet the security challenges that Ukraine faces.
The most important thing is that Zaluzhny is not only a highly professional officer, but a person whose morale and patriotism are not questioned by anyone in Ukraine.
However, the presidential office is becoming a little bit jealous of Zaluzhny’s popularity among Ukrainians. He’s supported by the majority of the nation, no matter what these people think about Zelenskyy’s policies.
Zaluzhny, who’s seen by sociologists as a promising public figure and maybe even a politician, doesn’t spend his time on politics. In a rare interview, he gave last year, the general said he’s not interested in anything outside his military career.
Rising through the ranks
Zaluzhny was born in Novograd-Volynsky, a city in Zhytomyr Oblast that is known for its local military base. However, the proximity of this base where men were walking around in camouflage didn’t encourage Zaluzhny to enlist in the army when he was young. After graduating from school, he earned a degree in engineering in 1993 from a local technical school that was preparing machine-building specialists.
He finally made his career choice when he applied to Odesa Infantry Institute, was accepted, graduated, and afterward went through two more educational programs – at Chernyahovsky Military Institute and Ostrig Academy, a well-known university in western Ukraine that offers courses in the humanities.
Denys Popovych, a military analyst in Kyiv, notes that Zaluzhny doesn’t look like a Soviet-era general. This is important since most of the Ukrainian generals were educated in Soviet military schools. General Zaluzhny is a totally different generation that matured during Ukraine’s period of independence. That’s why Zaluzhny learned English and paid lots of attention to Western military textbooks.
Before Zaluzhny became the commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, he went through every stage of a military career. “I had this regular promotion policy in my career, like all the officers in Ukraine,” Zaluzhny said in a February 2020 interview for ArmyInform, a media organization focused on covering Ukraine’s military policy.
“Whenever I was appointed to a new position, I started doing my best to do this job, learning its details. When I was receiving another position, I accepted it. You know, how it was: I was so busy all the time and didn’t even think about becoming a general.”
Throughout his career with Ukrainian Armed Forces, Zaluzhny had all kinds of assignments. He served as a platoon commander, then a battalion leader, then a tactical strategist with 24th Brigade, and finally a commander of the 51st Mechanized Infantry Brigade.
He took part in Ukraine’s defensive operation in the Donbas area in 2014, assigned with resisting the Russia-provoked unrest in the C sector. On the eve of his promotion to the Armed Forces commander position, Zaluzhny was a leading officer at Ukraine’s northern military command.
Last year, Zaluzhny gave an interview with Yanina Sokolova, a Ukrainian journalist, and said he had never really expected such a promotion. “This job was just out of my league. So I was shocked with such a promotion,” the general said.
Zelenskyy surprised Zaluzhny with his decision to promote him to the leadership of the nation’s Armed Forces. The general now says our president is a person who truly cares about the country’s security.
The big war
In September 2021 Zaluzhny gave an interview to Radio Liberty and revealed own feelings: Since he was appointed to the highest military job in this country, he’s been expecting a full-scale invasion from the Russian side. Therefore, he ordered the troops to prepare for this.
On Feb. 24, when Ukrainians woke to the news of the Russian invasion, Zaluzhny wrote on his Facebook page an official order for the Ukrainian army to hit the enemy as hard as possible. "We’re on our land, we won’t surrender!” he added then
Zaluzhny, obviously, can’t be blamed for any retreats. Agil Rustamzade, a military analyst, says Ukraine’s Armed Forces had a great strategic plan for defensive activities that allowed to survive through the first weeks of the war. According to this plan, some cities played the roles of modern-day fortresses, while special operation units and territorial defense were trying to resist to the fullest extent of their capacity.
That’s why the Russian army wasn’t able to succeed during the first stage of the ongoing war.
“Now, we keep defending the Donbas, it’s hard out there,” concludes Popovych, the military analyst.
Despite the Ukrainian army’s retreat in Luhansk Oblast, they’re still very well guided tactically to continue the defense operations in the country’s east.
The Russians are using Second World War methods, Popovych explains. If the Ukrainian army resists too much, Russian soldiers put their artillery to use, trying to reduce Ukrainian resistance to the “zero level.” That was seen in Rubizhne, Mariupol, Severodonetsk in the Donbas operational area, where everything was shelled, damaged and even ruined – all kinds of buildings.
“These are Soviet tactics – put as much fire pressure as possible. Crush everything, destroy everything,” says Popovych. This is how it worked in the Soviet army and it still works for the Russian army in a way.
This is the decentralization that the Ukrainian army truly needs.
Meanwhile, Zaluzhny has his own tactical arguments: use the defensive maneuvers where it’s possible and resist the Russian artillery pressure. That’s exactly Zaluzhny’s style – delegating as many decisions to the officers on the ground as needed for the country’s success on the battlefields, Popovych adds.
Putting tactical arguments aside, the leadership of the Ukrainian army is devoted to preserving the lives of the soldiers. This is what makes Ukraine’s military philosophy different from the one the Soviet army had, says Oktysyuk, the political analyst.
Popovych encourages NV to remember the Soviet movies and Soviet books devoted to army realities. They often mentioned this popular military philosophy introduced by the Soviet generals: “Not a single step backward.”
“Whatever was happening out there, the Soviet army had to keep its lines of defense, even at a risk of being encircled or even killed,” Popovych adds.
In 2014, when Russia invaded for the first time, the Ukrainian army used this tactical philosophy too. Now it’s a bit different – soldiers’ lives are a priority, so sometimes they’re ordered to step back.
“If our army is going to be burned for the reason of having a ‘No stepping back’ logic, then we’re going to lose more territories. More to this, we’ll lose our country because there will be no one to fight for it,” Popovych explains, adding that he hopes the new military philosophy will help Ukraine win the war.
Petro Shevchenko, a former NV journalist who joined the army, is now executing assignments on the battlefields. He’s received his military nom-de-guerre – Phoenix, a tribute to a legendary bird able to resurrect after death. Shevchenko says the Ukrainian army is lucky to have a commander who is a man with modern thinking, unlike the generals that the Russian army has.
This is a huge advantage for Ukraine, which needs to communicate its military decisions to its Western partners – NATO, the United States, the UK and other allies.
General Zaluzhny has a direct line of communication with Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces.
They discuss weaponry supplies and all the logistics that makes these supplies possible. This matters, since you can’t win a war against the world’s second biggest army only with your personal heroism, explains Shevchenko.
Ukrainian troops stationed in the combat areas appreciate Western military supplies a lot, though still want more. “On the frontlines, it still feels that the Russian army has more artillery,” Shevchenko adds. Russians have their own problems with serving the needs of own artillery systems, but Ukraine should still bet more on the artillery that it’s been receiving from the Western allies.
Shevchenko, a former business journalist, says frontline soldiers sometimes need a better understanding of what Ukrainian generals are planning.
“We do need better communications, so the servicemen who put their lives at risk on a daily basis have more information,” Shevchenko explains.
“Maybe, Zaluzhny should be doing this.”
Mykhailo Makaruk, a spokesperson for InformNapalm, a group of volunteers who have their own popular website, is now serving in the army. He says all the soldiers were happy when Zelenskyy appointed Zaluzhny to lead the Armed Forces. He did a lot to regain the soldiers’ trust in their generals, which matters a lot during the war.
Makaruk has known Zaluzhny since 2014. He says this is the first Armed Forces commander who talks to both his soldiers and the volunteers helping the army.
“He’s not at all into this principle where the general is the smart guy and all people around are idiots,” Makaruk says.
A week after being promoted to Armed Forces commander, Zaluzhny met Ukraine’s most popular groups of volunteers, who are helping the army cover its basic needs.
“He talked about things that are really necessary and sometimes even painful,” Makaruk says. “He talked about rebuilding the army, about changes in how we see our army.”
General Zaluzhny is always interested in any military innovations, any new concepts for how the military policy should be organized, Makaruk explains. Besides this, he’s positive and sincere, which also matters a great deal to the soldiers.
“He has the respect of both the soldiers and officers around him,” Makaruk says.
Zaluzhny’s personality was noticed by the global community. A year ago, no one abroad really knew his last name, and now apart from Time, another American publication – Politico, a website – has published a feature story on Zaluzhny’s personality, calling him a hero, and already a legend in Ukraine’s modern history.
Oktysyuk, a political analyst in Kyiv, makes another argument: General Zaluzhny is now preparing a new generation of the Ukrainian military elite, leading them by the example of his own personal integrity and devotedness to the nation’s security needs. Those who will come to lead the Armed Forces after Zaluzhny will have to inherit a lot of his policies, as he set an extremely high moral bar for how to run the Ukrainian army.
Some Ukrainian political analysts have speculated whether General Zaluzhny might become a politician and launch an election campaign. However, this will not necessarily be supported by the presidential office. Zaluzhny is de facto political cover for President Zelenskyy from any criticism about what’s happening on the battlefields.
Recently, President Zelenskyy disagreed with some of the army leadership’s policies, but this doesn’t mean Zaluzhny will disobey Zelenskyy and compete with him politically. The only thing that general Zaluzhny cares about is winning the war in Ukraine’s best interests.
“For now, politics can go to Hell, until we liberate our country,” says InformNapalm’s Makaruk emotionally. He says he’s sure Zaluzhny will never go into politics, where there are always intrigues taking place.
General Zaluzhny, before the Russian invasion, spoke of his dreams. He dreams of liberating the Ukrainian territories of Donbas and Crimea, so they would be controlled by the Ukrainian government.
“That’s how we’re different from our enemies – we’re always fighting for our freedom,” Zaluzhny said in his interview for the Radio Liberty on September 25, 2021.
Five months later he started putting these words into practice.
Five quotes from general Valeriy Zaluzhny on the military service:
- “I had this regular promotion policy in my career, like all the officers in Ukraine. Whenever I was appointed to a new position, I started doing my best to do this job, learning its details. When I was receiving another position, I accepted it. You know, how it was: I was so busy all the time and didn’t even think about becoming a general.” – Interview with ArmyInform, February 2020.
- “I’m an army man, a real military person, that’s how I see myself. I don’t like doing anything outside the military service.” – Interview with Yanina Sokolova, September 2021.
- “I’m proud to have this many enemies. I disagree with some people who have attracted a certain degree of respect and our professional development doesn’t intersect anymore. Now, I have so many friends among soldiers and junior officers, some of whom were promoted to higher ranks, leading regiments and brigades. I have friends among generals, among leaders of municipal communities, and local activists. That’s my main achievement.” – Interview with 5th TV channel, December 2021.
- “One of my weaknesses is that many people think I’m open and sincere most of the time, but I have my own red line. When I get pressured, I may behave differently. I won’t tolerate injustice in any way. I don’t like injustice and do all I can for things to run properly.” – Interview with 5th TV channel, December 2021.
- “That’s how we’re different from our cursed enemies – we’re always fighting for our freedom.” – Interview with Radio Liberty, September 2021.