November 6, 2023
After more than twenty months of bitter fighting against Russia, relations between the political and military leadership in Kiev appear to be under strain. The deadly battle is also weighing increasingly heavily on the minds of the population in the run-up to a new winter of war.
Is the supposedly one and indivisible Ukrainian front against the Russian aggressor slowly but surely crumbling for months? This question arises after signals have emerged in recent days of disagreement between the country’s political and military leaders.
For more than a year, it has been suggested that President Volodymyr Zelensky and his commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, regularly clashed over war strategy and top appointments in the military. But concrete evidence of this remained hidden from the cameras and the outside world.
- In Ukraine there appears to be resentment between the country’s political and military leadership.
- President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly reprimanded his commander-in-chief last weekend for citing a stalemate in the war.
- A day earlier, the Ministry of Defense had dismissed one of the army chief’s right-hand men.
- The dispute comes at a time when the conflict, which has lasted almost 89 weeks, is increasingly weighing heavily on Ukrainian citizens.
Until last weekend. During a visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Kiev, Zelensky admitted that Ukraine is struggling with ‘difficulties and different opinions’. In the same breath he publicly rebuked his army chief.
‘A lot of time has passed. People – regardless of their station – are tired. And that is understandable. But there is no stalemate in the war. We don’t even have the right to think about giving up. What is the alternative?’
Zelensky responded this way to an interview with Zaluzhny that the British weekly magazine The Economist published last week. In it, the army chief stated that the war with Russia has reached a stalemate. ‘A major technological breakthrough is needed to resolve this impasse. But there may not be a quick and clean breakthrough,” he said.
In the eyes of Zelensky and his entourage, the commander-in-chief could not have shared his analysis of the battlefield with the outside world at a worse time. Since the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas flared up on October 7, the battle in Ukraine has taken a back seat.
The authorities in Kiev fear that Western military support to their country will suffer as a result of the war in Gaza. Especially since signs of war fatigue appear to be emerging among international partners. It also does not help the Ukrainian cause that the counter-offensive launched in June yielded few territorial gains.
There is no stalemate in the war. We don’t even have the right to think about giving up. What is the alternative?
The resentment between the political and military leadership seems to transcend Zaluzhny’s interview. A day before the commander-in-chief’s public reprimand, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umyerov dismissed the chief of the army’s special operations department.
Authorities did not reveal a reason for that dismissal. It is also unclear whether Zaluzhny was warned in advance about the Defense Minister’s demarche against a general who successfully deployed his troops deep behind enemy lines in the Black Sea and into Russia.
If the rumblings among Ukrainian leaders continue, it could have an impact on popular sentiment. A poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that the seemingly hopeless struggle just before a new winter of war is weighing increasingly heavily on the minds of citizens.
That is not illogical. The US estimated in August that the conflict has killed at least 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers and injured more than 100,000 others. Optimism about a quick victory in the clash with the Russians has never been so low among the Ukrainian population since February 24, 2022.
A recent poll shows that the fight in Ukraine is increasingly weighing more heavily on the minds of citizens.
That frustration over the high death toll is growing was evident last month when several spontaneous protests took place in Kiev. In particular, relatives of missing soldiers or of soldiers who had been continuously on the battlefield since the start of the war made themselves heard.
Discontent is increasing in poorer villages because many of ‘their boys’ are dying in the trenches, while the sons of richer families in cities find ways to avoid conscription.