Unknown to fellow Ukrainians when he was named commander-in-chief last year, General Valeriy Zaluzhny has emerged as an icon of resistance against the Russian invasion.
The powerfully built 49-year-old’s birthday last month brought plaudits from across the country, with Ukrainians taking to social media to congratulate their military leader.
Children are even using his name in their games and the Ukrainian edition of Vogue magazine carried an article about him, calling him “a legendary figure”.
“Thanks to commander in chief Zaluzhny, our confidence in ourselves and in our victory has returned,” Volodymyr Omelian, a former transport minister, wrote on Facebook.
Ukrainians have credited Zaluzhny with disrupting Russia’s initial plan to capture Kyiv quickly after launching its offensive on February 24.
The fierce resistance of Ukrainian troops under Zaluzhny’s leadership forced Moscow to focus its attacks in the east and south of the country.
TIME magazine this year named Zaluzhny one of the 100 most influential people in the world, along with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Although Zaluzhny has given no media interviews since the start of the war, local media have dubbed him Ukraine’s “iron general”.
Zaluzhny “has emerged as the military mind his country needed”, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was quoted as saying in the profile, which said the general’s actions “will be remembered by history”.
– New military elite –
Even though he has not given any interviews since the start of the war, the Ukrainian press is filled with enthusiastic accounts of his leadership.
Russia’s plans for a “Blitzkrieg, a change of power and of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation have been ruined”, Zaluzhny wrote on Facebook two weeks after the start of the invasion.
“No matter how difficult it is for us, (this war) will certainly not bring shame on us,” he wrote.
Anatoly Oktysiuk, an analyst from Ukraine’s Democracy House, a think tank, said Zaluzhny is “competent and does not have the old Soviet mentality” once typical among Ukraine’s top brass.
“He is a patriot, he is not corrupt and has been well trained, including in the West,” he said.
Zaluzhny was born on July 8, 1973 at a Soviet military base in Novograd-Volynsky in northwest Ukraine.
His career is typical for an officer with 24 years in the military under his belt.
When Russia-backed separatists began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, he helped lead operations to fight back.
Named head of the military’s northern command in 2019, he was promoted to commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces in July 2021 by Zelensky.
– Political jealousy? –
The general prioritised reforms in the army to meet the standards of the NATO military alliance which Ukraine wants to join despite Russia’s opposition.
A few months later, he warned about “the threat of a major aggression” by Moscow in a rare interview.
“We have to prepare for it,” said Zaluzhny, a father of two daughters including one serving in the military.
Underlining his role as a member of a younger generation of officers with combat experience against the separatists, he called on Ukraine’s military command to “use all means” to “preserve the life and health” of soldiers.
His popularity has, according to some media reports, sparked jealousy from Zelensky’s entourage even though Zaluzhny has never signalled any political ambition and his public pronouncements are very rare.
In July, Zelensky for the first time criticised a decision taken by the army, which had announced restrictions on the movement of reservists between different parts of the country.
But he immediately softened the impact of his words, saying it was “a detail, nothing at all”.
“There is no misunderstanding between me and army command,” Zelensky said.
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