February 1, 2024 - 10:00am

The warfare in Ukraine dominating headlines over the past week has taken on a fratricidal flavour. Largely political in nature, it has been, if not literally fatal, arguably more poisonous. On Monday, scraps of a rumour made it online: Volodymyr Zelenskyy was about to fire his Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Apparently the two had a meeting at which the Ukrainian President told him the news personally. 

Cue the kind of outrage that any politically astute government should have predicted. After the general refused to resign, Zelenskyy decided to go back on the decision — for now, at least. Since the 2023 counteroffensive that heralded so much but delivered so little, the once near-jubilant mood in Ukraine has turned gloomy. “People are angry,” my friend Nataliya told me. “People are saying they don’t want to die for Zelenskyy. The mood changed in autumn after the counteroffensive. Our politicians said many things, including that we would liberate Melitopol [one of the occupied cities]. Nothing happened.”

As head of the army, Zaluzhnyi obviously had to take some responsibility, though if Western weapons had arrived in time this situation wouldn’t have come about. Britain and its allies have their own portion of blame to accept.

But there is a further issue. As Zelenskyy’s numbers have declined, Zaluzhnyi’s have risen. He is practically the most popular figure in Ukraine (alongside intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov). A December poll from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology had 62% of Ukrainians saying they trust the President (down from 84% in the same poll in December 2022), with Zaluzhnyi at 88%. Other polling has Zelenskyy’s trust rating significantly lower. There is a feeling that the presidential administration wants to neuter a possible rival. 

If this is indeed the case, it seems a foolish way to achieve that outcome. The reaction earlier this week made clear that Zelenskyy will only appear petty if he does fire his general. He will become not stronger but weaker. Zaluzhnyi will become a martyr, a powerful thing to be for anyone with political ambitions — which up to now he has shown no indication of having.

It looks like the presidential decree sacking Zaluzhnyi may still be imminent. But we must be wary of over-egging matters. As Adam Ure of Lvivski Consulting, and the former head of disinformation capability at the FCDO, tells me, “Russian state sources have already pounced on the latest claims and used them to their advantage, exaggerating the supposed divisions and the alleged structural problems in Ukraine’s defence.”

As Ure also points out, this speaks to a longstanding pattern of the Russians taking any opportunity to undermine the Kyiv leadership’s attempts to project a united image to its partners. The country’s armed forces will continue to support the President no matter what changes take place in the military command. Russia will continue to try to exaggerate any apparent internal splits for its own ends.

How relations between the political and military leadership will develop in the short term remains unclear. Things are less than ideal on the frontlines, as I learned first-hand from the soldiers there the last time I visited. Morale has been higher. But what is equally clear is that the Ukrainians will not just give up their country — the understanding that Russia cannot be allowed to take Ukraine remains as deep and as pervasive as it has ever been. The Ukrainians continue to fight, not just for themselves, but for an increasingly embattled West.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)