Rifts within Ukraine’s top leadership have burst into the open following swirling rumours that the country’s top military chief will be dismissed amid reported tensions with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The rumours that Valerii Zaluzhnyi would be sacked were denied by Zelenskyy’s office and the Defence Ministry this week, and the immensely popular top commander still retains his post. But the reports have fuelled expectations of his imminent resignation, which could be a boon for Russia as the war approaches its second anniversary.
His departure would be the most severe shakeup of Ukraine’s top military brass since the Russian invasion as the country grapples with dire ammunition and personnel shortages following a failed summer counteroffensive. It also could hurt the morale of Ukrainian troops, who have been fighting grinding battles for nearly two years.
Reports about Zaluzhnyi’s possible dismissal appeared in Ukrainian media Monday. Ukraine’s Mirror of the Week said, citing unidentified sources close to Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi, that the president had asked the general to step down. Zaluzhnyi was offered a post as an adviser, but he rejected that, according to the reports.
Requests for comment by the president’s office and Zaluzhnyi’s office were not answered.
Western support coming more slowly
While the leaders of the 27 European Union countries sealed a deal Thursday to provide Ukraine with a new 50-billion-euro ($67 billion Cdn) support package despite Hungary’s weeks of threats to veto the move, much needed military aid from Washington to fuel the next phase of the fight is blocked in the U.S. Congress.
Ukrainian forces are digging in to defend positions against advancing Russian troops amid an ammunition shortage compared to their foes.
“Zelenskyy has the right to remove Zaluzhnyi. But he needs to have a very good justification for that, a very good explanation which is understandable to Ukrainians,” said Oleksii Haran, research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv.
“We know that if Zaluzhnyi is dismissed right now, it will be used by Russian propaganda, it will be used by forces, including those inside the United States, which are delaying supplies of arms to Ukraine. So this won’t be a good thing,” Haran said.
WATCH l More than 15,000 service-eligible Ukrainians have fled to Moldova:
Ukraine says it needs 500,000 more soldiers to fight Russia, but thousands of men have fled the country to avoid getting drafted. CBC’s Briar Stewart got rare access to the Moldovan border control unit tasked with catching men sneaking over the border and some of the men who fled.
Zaluzhnyi enjoys widespread popularity across the country and the military, but he has been at odds with Zelenskyy since saying in an interview with The Economist last year that the fighting with Russia had reached a stalemate. The president denied that was the case.
Russian state media covered the story of the rumours several times during the flagship discussion program on the Russia 1 television channel as well as during news bulletins on the news channel Russia 24.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin is “of course” following the news about Zaluzhnyi.
“There are still many questions,” Peskov said, according to Russian news agency Tass, adding: “One thing remains obvious: The Kyiv regime has many problems, everything is wrong there. This is clear.”
“It’s obvious that the failed counter-offensive and the problems at the front have led to growing conflict … both in the military and civilian elite” in Kyiv, Peskov said. He predicted that “these conflicts will grow” as Russia’s military operation “continues successfully.”
Prisoner swap, plane mystery continues
Russia and Ukraine exchanged about 200 prisoners of war each, the countries said Wednesday.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the countries exchanged 195 POWs each. After the statement was released, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 207 Ukrainians were freed. There was no immediate explanation for the different figures.
Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights, said on social media that it was the 50th such exchange since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago, with a total of 3,035 POWs repatriated.
Moscow had said 65 Ukrainian POWs had been aboard the military transport plane that crashed on Jan. 24. Ukrainian officials confirmed that a swap was due to take place that day and was called off, but said it has seen no evidence the plane was carrying the POWs.
WATCH l Many questions after deadly western Russia crash:
Russia’s Defence Ministry accused Ukraine of shooting down a military transport plane filled with Ukrainian prisoners of war bound for a prisoner exchange. Ukraine, which has not taken responsibility, said Russia deliberately endangered the lives of POWs.
Meeting with his campaign staff in Moscow as he ramps up his run for reelection on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russian investigators concluded that Ukraine used U.S.-supplied Patriot air defence systems to shoot down the transport plane.
Ukrainian officials didn’t deny the plane’s downing but didn’t take responsibility and called for an international investigation. Putin said Russia wouldn’t just welcome but would “insist” on an international inquiry on what he described as a “crime” by Ukraine.
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