Volodymyr Zelensky has finally succeeded in firing General Valery Zaluzhny. This time, according to reporting coming from Kiev, Zaluzhny has accepted the order and has thanked Ukrainians for their sacrifice. Zelensky will now fire most of the top brass in the army aligned with Zaluzhny. Choosing Syrsky is somewhat of a risk, because Syrsky and Zaluzhny are friends.
On the other hand, Syrsky is not known for achieving victories. He is an older (58 years), plodding general who now commands the ground troops. It is the ground troops who are losing along the line of contact.
No one can say for sure what Zelensky will accomplish. Kiev is blaming the failed offensive on Zaluzhny and he was getting ready to blame him also for the fall of Avdiivka (that will happen soon).
Exactly how a new team can make any difference is hard to say. Zelensky fired Zaluzhny so he could call the shots on the battlefield.
Zelensky has no military background. Before running for President he was a TV comedian.
Washington at first did not approve of dumping Zaluzhny, regarding him (as do the Russians) as a competent and serious military leader. Firing Zaluzhny is, in US terms, the same as firing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Lurking in the background is Kiev’s new draconian conscription law, which has now passed the first reading in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Next week the Rada will have its second reading and the bill will be sent to Zelensky for signature.
Zaluzhny refused to back the conscription law, and he likewise refused to go to the Rada to push lawmakers into passing it.
Aside from those who have left the country (the borders are now closed to draft-age men). the new law will impact either the Ukrainian elites or the children of the elites. This is likely to cause considerable blowback on Kiev. Reportedly some of the Rada members already have left or are planning to leave the country. Presumably they also will want to protect their families. If Zelensky actually imposes real sanctions on the elites, he may find the length of his presidency dramatically shortened.
Elites in Ukraine also face other challenges. The lack of billions of dollars from NATO countries means salaries, pensions, and benefits won’t be paid to government workers or to the military. While the EU is getting ready to shovel some funds to Ukraine (over the next four years), the EU needs to find the money and levy appropriations on its members. There’s the rub, as Shakespeare put it.
The US is also “trending” toward some sort of authorization in the Senate for Ukraine, but whether it goes through both houses is still uncertain. It may be that Congress will drag approval out while things unfold in Ukraine.
On the battlefront the Russians continue to gain ground and throw back Ukrainian counter attacks.
Avdiivka is almost split in half, and Ukrainian strongholds in the city, especially in high rise areas, are being booby trapped by Ukrainian soldiers before they pull out. The city is strategically important because it is so close to Donetsk, and beyond Avdiivka there are not many defenses in place.
There is also the chance Russia will launch a larger scale offensive, probably in the Kharkiv direction. Reportedly there are 40,000 new Russian troops formed up for what might best be called a mini-offensive.
Alternatively, the Russians may decide to drive toward Kiev. They have already increased rocket attacks that include Kiev, and if the Ukrainian army starts to fold then the Russians will throw more troops into the fight aimed at Kiev.
Zaluzhny may beat them to it. He will be hearing a lot of offers to take over the country. Syrsky is unlikely to want to defend Zelensky, and some of the specialist brigades (Azov, Kraken) are likely to be tied up in the Kharkiv direction. The Russians have also started specifically targeting them, seeking to weaken those units before any new offensive.
There are lots of rumblings in Kiev. Politicians who have been quiet during the war are now saying they could replace Zelensky. The Kiev mayor, Vitali Klitschko, has accused Zelensky of being an authoritarian. Other Ukrainian personalities, Yulia Tymoshenko for example, are starting to act like presidential candidates, even though martial law is projected to be extended again by Zelensky.
Washington now knows that the very best that can be hoped for is that the war continues and the Russians fail to consolidate their territorial gains. But this is a rather illusory outlook as the Russians are not paying a high price to sit back and let things drift. In fact, Russian leaders are starting to act as if they smelled blood.
Biden may have to face either the collapse of Ukraine as it is defeated by Russia or, possibly, a replacement government friendly to Moscow.
In Europe there is talk about sending in troops to save Ukraine. Looked at from a purely operational standpoint, sending European brigades to fight is almost impossible because the brigades are situated too far away to be of any use. In any case, this is mostly desperation talk, not reality.
Retired Polish generals, and some British, are pushing the idea of a military bailout. But, as serious people in Europe know, NATO lacks the tanks and armor, ammunition and even troops to carry off any operation lasting for more than a few days.
NATO could try to punish Russia with airpower, but Russia has good air defenses and a capable air force. Therefore there would be no guarantee of success and many chances for Russian retaliation against NATO bases, even NATO cities.
If the US, with airpower, is finding it hard to stop third-rate low tech adversaries in Iraq and Syria, on what basis would the US and NATO think they can prevail against a near-peer?
Washington and the other NATO players should be thinking about finding a way out, since pushing arms to the Ukrainians may not work, especially if there isn’t anyone to shoot the guns.
Stephen Bryen served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. This article was first published on his Weapons and Strategy Substack and is republished with permission.