The wartime feud between Ukraine’s most powerful men ended last week not with an earthquake but a handshake.
For more than a year, the elites in Kyiv often found themselves weighing their loyalties to one of two camps, siding either with President Volodymyr Zelensky or his top military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny. The clashes between them tended to play out behind the scenes, usually inside the president’s war room, and they led to fears of a lasting break within the country’s leadership that could jeopardize its chances in the war against Russia.
But on Thursday, when Zelensky finally dismissed the general, Zaluzhny gave no immediate response. The next day, images posted on the presidential website showed the two men embracing and smiling as Zelensky bestowed the nation’s highest military honor, the Hero of Ukraine, on General Zaluzhny.
“They agreed not to show signs of any conflict,” a military officer close to Zaluzhny told TIME after the ceremony. “That could have led to instability, and we all understand that unsettling the country right now would only serve the interests of the enemy,” he said, asking not to be named in discussing the general’s thinking.
Their dispute could have ended far less amicably. Zaluzhny is the nation’s most popular leader, and he is widely credited with saving the country during the early weeks of the Russian invasion. Some of his aides had urged the general to consider challenging Zelensky for the presidency. Several of the president’s friends and allies, meanwhile, warned that firing the general could alienate much of the officer corps, which could rise up to defend their commander. The rift thus posed the greatest internal threat to Zelensky’s wartime leadership. Now he appears to have quashed it.
When the invasion started in February 2022, President Zelensky gave his generals the freedom to lead on the battlefield while he focused on the tasks of wartime diplomacy—securing vast amounts of military and financial aid from abroad. But over time, the President and his aides developed their own strategic vision for Ukraine’s defense, and it was not always aligned with that of General Zaluzhny. The two sides disagreed over the need to draft some 500,000 troops into the military. They also butted heads over the general’s decision to declare a stalemate along the frontlines last fall.
One of the earliest disputes between them centered around Snake Island, a fleck of land in the Black Sea that the Russians had occupied in the first days of the invasion. According to people involved in the Ukrainian response, Zelensky wanted an operation in the spring of 2022 to recover the island in a show of force against the Russians that could help Ukraine secure vital shipping routes in the Black Sea. But General Zaluzhny felt the operation was not worth the risk to soldiers and military hardware, which he was trying to preserve for other sectors of the front. In the end, Zelensky won out. The operation, which took more than two months and multiple attempts to storm the island, finally dislodged the Russian occupiers in June 2022.
A similar argument played out that summer over where to launch a far more ambitious counterstrike. In coordination with his U.S. and European allies, General Zaluzhny held a series of virtual war games to analyze various lines of attack, and he settled on an ambitious plan to push southward toward Crimea, aiming to cut through Russia’s main lines of defense. The plan would require careful planning, as well as vast reserves of weaponry and manpower. But the president’s office wanted a faster approach, one that could quickly demonstrate Ukraine’s ability to seize back territory.
Satellite images and other intelligence showed that the Russian lines were weakest not in the south, on the way to Crimea, but in the northeast, around the city of Kharkiv. Zelensky urged his top commander to launch an attack in the Kharkiv direction. Zaluzhny refused, arguing that it would mark a costly distraction from the all-important push toward the south. By the beginning of fall, Zelensky decided again to overrule the general, and he ordered the Kharkiv offensive to proceed under the command of Ukraine’s second-highest ranking officer, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky.
The operation did not disappoint. In September 2022, the Ukrainians managed to reclaim the Kharkiv region from the Russians, who were forced to flee by the thousands from the troops advancing under General Syrsky’s command. Zelensky then traveled to meet with Syrsky on the battlefield and raise a flag over the liberated city of Izyum.
Soon after, rumors spread within the upper ranks that the president intended to oust General Zaluzhny and install Syrsky in his place. That is precisely what the president did last week, having held back for more than a year, largely out of concerns that a move against Zaluzhny could hurt morale within the rank and file. The president’s office also worried that Zaluzhny could decide to enter the political arena, thus posing a direct threat to Zelensky’s authority.
Throughout the Russian invasion, opinion polls have consistently shown that Zelensky and Zaluzhny are the two most popular leaders in the country by far. One survey taken in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that Zaluzhny enjoys the trust of 88% of Ukrainians. Trust in the president meanwhile stood at 62%, down from 84% a year earlier.
Zelensky, who took office in 2019, would normally be up for re-election this spring. But under the terms of martial law, elections in Ukraine have been suspended indefinitely. Although Zaluzhny has never publicly expressed any intention to go into politics, some of his aides within the General Staff watched the opinion polls closely in 2022 and considered what it would take for him to capitalize on his popularity by forming a political party or launching a presidential campaign.
“He understands that becoming president would be straightforward enough with the right team, the right program,” the general’s spokesperson told me near the end of 2022. “He’s prepared. But I’m not sure he’ll go for it. If everything goes alright, if he sees that the right steps are being taken, the right attitude toward veterans, toward the families of the dead, if the efforts to fight corruption are really tough and the army is getting stronger, he might decide against it.”
In the days since his dismissal, General Zaluzhny has given no indication of his plans. He declined an invitation to join the National Security and Defense Council, which is seen within Kyiv’s power circles as a retirement home for military and intelligence brass. (Zaluzhny’s predecessor, General Ruslan Khomchak, holds a seat on that council.) The military officer close to Zaluzhny said that, for now, the general plans to “step aside” and let the new commanders take the lead.
As for the next phase of Zaluzhny’s career, the officer said: “Time will tell.”
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