The revelation that, on the third day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zaluzhny personally vetoed a plan to destroy Kyiv’s bridges across the Dnipro River has furthered his reputation and the legend that is growing around him.
Kyiv Post looks more closely at the man whose decisions may determine the outcome of the war against Russia and whose reputation has deservedly grown in parallel with every success by Ukrainian troops.
Valery Fedorovych Zaluzhny, the future general, was born on July 8, 1973, in Novohrad-Volynskyi, now Zviahel, which was then a military garrison, his father being a serving Soviet military officer.
He followed, somewhat reluctantly, in the footsteps of his military family – he says when he was young his ambition was to become a comedian [like his President]. Instead, he entered the Odesa Land Forces Institute in the early 1990s, graduating with honors in 1997; the start of what was to become an incredible career.
Ridding Ukraine of its Soviet past
He was part of that generation of military officers that, having seen the military during the Soviet through the eyes of his father, realized the modern Ukrainian army needed to rid itself of the old USSR military dogma that relied on rigid, top-heavy decision-making and needed to better resemble the NATO model where an officer needed to be a leader first not just a commander.
The next 17 or so years as depicted on his official government website followed a rapid, if not particularly spectacular, rise from his initial role as a platoon commander.
War in Ukraine
It was in his role as deputy commander of the forces fighting against separatists in eastern Ukraine, backed by the Russian army, following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that he first came to public notice.
It was here that the theories he had developed about how to command effectively were put to the test for real.
Zaluzhny said in an interview with the Economist in December 2022: “For us, for the military, the war began in 2014 .... I had no idea what war really was in 2014.
“I had read a lot of books, I had graduated from all the academies with a gold medal, I understood everything theoretically, but I did not understand what war really meant.”
Further training and education
After performing well during the fighting on the eastern front he then went through another period of command and staff officer training, including exercises and instruction with NATO forces, on several occasions.
This period culminated in him graduating from the National University Ostroh Academy in 2020 with a master's degree, his thesis for which was a comparison between the Ukrainian and US military structures.
To Zaluzhny, his thesis was more than just an academic exercise. His studies and his experience during the fighting in the Donbas became the basis of his own doctrine for how he and those around him should exercise leadership and command.
Flexible structure for Ukraine's armed forces
Marina Miron, a research fellow in the Defense Studies Department of Kings College London said of Zaluzhny: "The war in Donbas shaped his idea of basically creating this flexible structure within the Ukrainian Armed Forces, seeing how wars are being conducted in contemporary times.
"You see there was this mix, he's done something on the battlefield, he commands the troops, he goes back to studying, he gets promoted, he does a little bit of everything,"
Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leadership who has worked alongside the general as a special advisor has commented that Zaluzhny found “the Ukrainian military did many things well … but the glaringly obvious missing link, was leader development.”
He added: “So, he set in motion, starting in 2014, to really change the way the Ukraine military develops leaders.
“He developed a series of commanders under him who mirror his leadership style ... they helped train the army to be much more agile and much more Western, really developing the junior leaders, the sergeants, and the lieutenants and the captains to be much more innovative, problem-solving, very different than the old Soviet armies. The army that fought the Russians in 2014 is very different than the army that faced the Russians in 2022.”
Commanding Ukraine's military
According to TIME magazine, on July 27, 2021, the now Commander of Operational Command “North” was drinking a beer at his wife’s birthday party when he stepped outside to take a cell phone call.
He was shocked to hear the voice of Volodymyr Zelensky, who became president of Ukraine two years prior, told him that he was being appointed as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The then 48-year-old general was not the only one shocked at the turn of events. This promotion involved a jump of several rungs above his position on the career ladder at the time. Many expected that, if anyone was going to become Ukraine's top commander, it would have been Oleksandr Syrskyi, who was senior to Zaluzhny and had been Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces since August 2019.
Zaluzhny receiving another medal from President Zelensky. Photo: Office of the President
General Syrskyi and Zaluzhny
It was expected by many that, true to Kyiv’s tradition of political in-fighting, the relationship would never work. Both men are highly ambitious and, perhaps if war had not come, the doomsayers would have proved right.
But because of Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale war just seven months after Zaluzhny took the reins, the two have proved to be an indispensable team as they are both fully focused on winning the war against Russia.
They both claim to trust each other implicitly and yet the machinations continue. General Zaluzhny has become so popular that both allies and opponents of President Zelensky feel that he could become a political threat.
This fear was reinforced by the unexpected ruthless streak that the C-in-C showed after taking over, sacking a total of ten generals as “not being up to the job” in less than a year after taking over and in the first few months of the war.
Some of those anti-Zaluzhny political insiders began to agitate to replace him with Syrsky. These calls became so vocal last summer that a number of Western military officials expressed concern that cracks were forming in the unity essential to win the war.
The President and both generals dismiss any talk of rivalry of this kind.
Cooperation between Ukraine's two top generals
“The so-called conflict with Zaluzhny was invented by our opposition from start to finish,” according to Oleksiy Arestovych, a Zelensky aide and veteran of Ukraine’s military intelligence service.
On his part Zaluzhny says: “I trust Syrsky. If he tells me he needs another brigade, it means that he really needs another brigade. I certainly don’t think I am the smartest one here. I must and do listen to those who are in the field.”
In an interview with The Economist in December, General Syrsky insisted: “The army is outside of politics. It is how it should be, and how the law demands it to be.”
The way Ukraine’s war is going suggests the triumvirate is working. Zelensky fights the war on the international stage persuading, cajoling and berating his allies to give Ukraine the tools it needs to do the job.
Zaluzhny does what he does best: “As the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I am responsible for combat readiness, training and the use of the Armed Forces,” he told Radio Svoboda in a September interview.
Commentators and analysts apportion Ukraine’s overall strategy to Zaluzhny, with some claiming it will be studied by military historians in the future. But he in turn relies on those under his command, particularly Syrsky, to implement his plans and, in line with his credo does not interfere unnecessarily.
It is the ground force commander who was primarily instrumental in Ukrainian troops' successful defense of Kyiv in the early days of the war, the successful 2022 autumn counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv and to whom much of the heavy lifting will fall in the ongoing 2023 summer offensive.
A Man of few words
Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, Zaluzhnyy has made relatively few public appearances and issued only occasional public statements, preferring to leave them to his more charismatic President.
When he does speak people listen. He said Ukraine’s troops had stopped the second most powerful army in the world. “We stopped the opponent in all directions. We have caused them losses they never saw or could imagine. All Ukrainians know about this. The world knows about this.”
While he has sought to avoid any celebrity status, the success of the Ukrainian forces in stopping the Russian forces has made it perhaps inevitable that he is going down in military folklore both in his country and in the wider world. The extent of that is, perhaps, best exemplified by this first day cover and stamps produced by the West African country of Togo:
Even more than that, the fact that his soldiers have come up with an affectionate nickname for him shows how the man has become a legend:
Zalizni Nezlamnyy Zaluzhny — “Iron Unbreakable” Zaluzhny – the Iron General.
This article was updated on Nov. 1.
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