Is Zaluzhny Getting Ready to Take Down Zelensky?

Ukraine is going through a crisis in civil-military relations which will have a tremendous impact on how it goes forward regarding the ongoing conflict with Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly summoned the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valerie Zaluzhny, to a meeting on Monday, January 29, 2024, where he informed his military commander that he was being relived from his position. According to accounts that have appeared in western media, Zaluzhny refused to step down. As of Friday, February 2, 2024, the precise status of General Zaluzhny remains uncertain amid a swirl of rumors regarding his imminent dismissal.

The rift between Zelensky and Zaluzhny represents a serious blow to one of the fundamental principles which underpins democratic society—a civil-military relationship predicated on the simple proposition that a democratically elected civilian leadership is the final authority on all matter, including military, and in the case of disputes between the civil and military leadership, civilian authority retains supreme authority.

If the reports of what is tantamount to a refusal to obey the lawful order of his civilian commander in chief are true, General Zaluzhny has opened a pandora’s box which, if left unresolved, could lead to the rapid unravelling of Ukraine’s civilian-controlled government and open the door for the emergence of a government that is either subordinated to the will of the Ukrainian military, or which has been replaced by a military junta. Neither bodes well either for the sustainment of the notion that Ukraine functions as a democracy along the lines of its European and American allies, or for the prospects of stable governance for Ukraine at a time when it faces unprecedented economic, military, and foreign policy challenges.

History is replete with examples of civil-military disagreements during times of war. American history is home for two premier examples—the split between George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and the disagreements between Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman during the Korean conflict. However, in both cases when the civilian authority demanded that the military authority resign, the military authority complied.

Zaluzhny, it appears, refused to step aside, taking the issue of military defiance of civil authority into unchartered territory.

Managing civil-military relations is a complex process that balances the advice the military provides to its civilian masters with the actual oversight provided by the civilian leadership over military affairs. Given the disparity that exists fact-based military reality and the simplified and often politicized fiction that civilian leadership embraces, rifts are not only to be expected, but are in fact a reality that must be anticipated, and mechanisms put in place to keep them from erupting into crises. One of the biggest problems faced in the civil-military relationship is that of agenda control and information management. While disagreements can and will emerge between military leaders and their civilian masters over military issues, the military can never lose sight of the fact that if the civil-military relationship is to succeed, the military cannot possess an agenda that deviates from that of its civilian leadership. Nor should the military take advantage of the fact that it in large part dominates the flow of information to society about military matters to use the media as a tool to articulate its own agenda.

In the case of the Zelensky-Zaluzhny split, the record seems to reflect that Zaluzhny has, for some time now, been engaged in activities which point to his having an agenda that not only deviates from that of his commander in chief, but in many ways is designed to be in opposition to his commander in chief—an agenda which paints Zaluzhny as a political competitor to Zelensky. Again, the examples of George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur point to the fact that such actions are not unique in the history of civil-military relations in democracies. However, in both of those circumstances, the military commanders resigned their positions when ordered to do so, and continued their political opposition in the civil arena, without the active backing of a military which was obligated to remain loyal to its civilian leadership.

Zaluzhny, however, has refused to step aside, taking his differences with Zelensky into a political arena which, if he remains as a military commander, will be corrupted by his presence.

There have been indicators that the Zelensky-Zaluzhny split was headed in this direction. Back in November 2023, Zaluzhny gave an interview with The Economist where he openly challenged Zelensky’s view regarding the state of the conflict with Russia, likening it to a stalemate that suggested the Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023 had failed. Zelensky, anxious to retain the confidence of his American and European benefactors, rejected Zaluzhny’s version of events, leading to the first public split between the two, and opening the door to speculation about Zaluzhny’s political ambitions. Zaluzhny continued this trend of projecting a rift with his president by publishing an essay with CNN on February 1, 2024, where he questioned Zelensky’s approach toward mobilization while presenting himself as the sole source of military wisdom when it came to preparing the Ukrainian military for the next phase of the conflict with Russia.

A recent social media post by Andriy Stempitsky, a founding member of the neo-Nazi Right Sector’s* paramilitary forces (recently converted into the 67thBrigade of the Ukrainian Army), shows him with General Zaluzhny, a Right Sector flag and the portrait of Stepan Bandera displayed on the wall behind them. Zelensky’s history with the Right Sector is not a pleasant one—the head of the Right Sector, Dmitri Yarosh, once called Zelensky an “inexperienced politician” who would “hang on some tree on Khreshchatyk [the main street of Kiev] if he betrays Ukraine and those people who died in the [Maidan] Revolution and the War [in the Donbas].”

The meaning behind the post was clear—if Zelensky were to follow through on his attempt to remove Zaluzhny from power, then Zaluzhny would follow through of the Right Sector’s promise to hang Zelensky as a traitor.

This is the state of play today in a nation the collective West has been describing as a model democracy. The crisis in civil-military relations between President Zelensky and General Zaluzhny has exposed the harsh reality that Ukraine is not—and indeed, has never been—a western-style democracy, but rather a nation where weak democratically elected leaders operate under the shadow cast by neo-Nazi groups that threaten the very survival of the presidency should he govern in a manner which deviates away from their ideologically-based positions.

That Zaluzhny has so openly aligned himself with the Right Sector when it comes to his disputes with Zelensky is something that should trouble everyone with a vested interest in the outcome of the Russian-Ukraine conflict and drives home the accuracy of Russia’s indictment of Ukraine as a nation under the heel of forces that trace their political philosophy back to the times of Nazi Germany. With Zelensky, this control was done in a manner which sought to disguise the role played by the Right Sector. Zaluzhny’s defiance of Zelensky, and his open alignment with the Right Sector as an extension of this defiance, points to a very troubled future for Ukraine, one which can only be truly resolved through a Russian victory that includes the kind of de-Nazification promised by the Russian leadership.

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