Ukraine’s top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny, has taken a rare step into domestic politics with a public call for tougher penalties for soldiers deserting their units, as fighting and casualties intensified in the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Speaking in a Dec. 18 video posted on his personal Facebook page, Zaluzhny said he supports a bill recently approved by Parliament which, if signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelensky,  would change penalties to soldiers convicted of abandoning fighting positions or defying their commanders from the current practice of a slap on the wrist and a minor fine, to jail sentences ranging from three to 12 years.

 "I..ask the President to sign the law. My opinion clearly reflects the position of commanders of formations and military units," Zaluzhny said in part."

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 A veteran of fighting against Russian forces since 2014, and chief engineer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s (AFU) vicious resistance and repeated successful counterattacks against invading Russian forces, Zaluzhny is widely popular among Ukrainian voters.

 He is mostly praised by Ukrainian service personnel as a competent commander who is tough but knows the limitations of his troops.

 Military observers, both at home and abroad, have credited Zaluzhny for welding the AFU into a generally effective force. But even 11 months into the war, Ukraine’s army remains a  hodge-podge of formations of widely-varying skills and capacities, ranging from regular combined arms brigades performing on a par with NATO units, to territorial defense battalions stitched together from local towns and village, to bands of armed volunteers at times not even acknowledging an AFU officer’s right to give them orders.

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 Zaluzhny said that under the present rules, any Ukrainian soldier can, if he wishes, flee an assigned position or defy his commander and face little more than a 10 percent deduction from his military salary.

 Harsher sentences generally are probated so that the "refusnik", Zaluzhny said, might stay with his unit and hopefully fight better the next time.

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 "An army is built on discipline," Zaluzhny said. "This is unfair…exposed areas of the front are forced to be covered by other servicemen, which leads to increased losses of personnel, territories, and civilians on them. Often, lost positions have to be restored by assault actions at a very high cost. This should not be the case."

 The Ukrainian Parliament approved draft bill No. 8271 on Dec. 13, which, if signed into law by President Zelensky, would impose a jail term of three to 10 years on a soldier convicted of "disobedience".

 Directly disobeying an order, threatening a senior with violence, and deserting one’s unit would carry a potential penalty of five to 10 years in prison. Proved desertion in the face of fire would carry a minimum five and maximum 12 years in prison.

 The law would also close a loophole allowing civilian courts to overturn a military sentence imposed on a service member, and allow small unit commanders to fine soldiers caught drinking on duty more than one month’s salary, or throw the guilty party into unit detention for as much as two weeks, without appeal.

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 With the exception of a small proportion of rear area troops, the AFU is practically an entirely all-volunteer force. Although most Ukrainian soldiers and many civilians say the AFU would benefit from tighter discipline, and that commanders should have more authority to enforce orders, severe penalties for front line soldiers attempting to save their lives are politically controversial in Ukraine, where almost without exception voters know one or more persons, usually blood relatives, who are actually in service.

 Complaints of lingering Soviet mentality in field grade and higher officers, particularly in rear area units, are widespread. Kyiv Post reporters visiting front line units have repeatedly heard soldiers and even junior officers argue that senior commanders in the AFU at times lack tactical skill or don’t really understand the situation on the front.

 Yury Butusov, one of Ukraine’s highest profile military correspondents, and a longtime outspoken supporter of Zaluzhny personally, in a Dec. 20 Facebook post echoed that point of view, saying that any commander thinking troops on the line will fight better if they are threatened with punitive jail sentences, has little understanding on why Ukrainian combat units fight and how to maintain their morale.

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 "I think the authors of this bill would very much benefit from a visit to the front," Butusov wrote.

 Ukrainian political pundits have repeatedly asserted that the hugely popular Zaluzhny might well challenge Zelensky in the country’s next Presidential election scheduled to take place in 2024, particularly if the AFU manages to defeat the Russian army before the vote, and that his relationship with Zelensky, whom he never met before the war, is sometimes strained.

 Zelensky has, at least in public, praised Zaluzhny repeatedly.  

 Zaluzhny has mostly avoided public exposure since the outset of the war, and when speaking to reporters has avoided commenting on ongoing legislation.

 Zaluzhny’s remarks came against the background of fierce fighting and heavy casualties in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where a mix of Ukrainian units are attempting to hold positions against air and ground attacks by Russian forces led by the Wagner mercenary group.

 Over the past weekend AFU units launched a round of mostly successful, but at times bloody counterattacks, to regain positions in house-to-house combat last week.

 Zelensky made a surprise visit to Bakhmut on Dec. 20 to meet with soldiers on the front line.

 During a media event the Ukrainian leader handed out medals for bravery to selected men and officers.

 "I call on all our people, no matter where you are, please, to support Ukrainian heroes, who are holding out against the most vicious attacks of the occupiers, against the most mindless Russian blows, support our Bakhmut - tormented, but unconquered - and its defenders," Zelensky said.

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 The Ukrainian leader made no public comment on the recent unsanctioned retreats by Ukrainian troops in some sectors, which Zaluzhny criticized, nor on bill No. 8271 or the general’s call on Dec. 18 for tougher discipline, particularly regarding front line soldiers.

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