Ukraine’s Zelensky, Facing Rising Challenges, Touts Leadership Overhaul

President says country’s leadership needs a ‘reset’ as he faces battlefield pressures and flagging Western support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is considering a leadership shuffle aimed at reinvigorating efforts to combat Russia’s invasion—changes that could test his ability to retain support at home and in the West.

Zelensky’s comments on the potential overhaul were the first to address speculation buzzing in Kyiv since last week that he is planning to remove Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces. In an interview with Italian state channel RAI, broadcast late Sunday, Zelensky said his plans were much broader.

“We’re talking about a reset of some state leaders, not just one sector,” he said, without elaborating.

Zelensky’s deliberations over Zaluzhniy and other officials add domestic political drama to other pressures, including Russian military offensives that are inching forward and political deadlock in the U.S. over a proposed new aid package. The general is popular among the military and the public and has also won praise in the West for the way the army has held off much larger Russian forces.

The raft of challenges will test the political acumen of Zelensky, a 46-year-old former TV comedian who garnered acclaim at home and abroad for remaining in Kyiv in February 2022 as Russian forces closed in. Back then, he lifted the nation with his defiant oratory and helped swing the West behind Ukraine with ever-larger weapons deliveries.

But as the war approaches a third year, and Ukrainian forces run short on ammunition and struggle to hold back Russian offensives, Western officials worry about cracks in unity in Kyiv and instability that a change to army leadership could cause. A December poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that 72% of people surveyed were against the removal of Zaluzhniy, a 50-year-old career soldier who has served as Ukraine’s top military commander since 2021.

Zelensky, in the interview, played down the gravity of the situation around the general. “It’s a personnel question, like in any serious country,” he said.

Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, is popular among the military and the public. PHOTO: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFF/ZUMA PRESS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting troops in the Zaporizhzhia region on Sunday. PHOTO: HANDOUT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Zaluzhniy hasn’t commented on the possibility of his dismissal. On Monday, he posted a selfie on social media flashing a V sign for victory next to an aide, whom he congratulated on his birthday. “Things will be very tough, but we will never be ashamed,” Zaluzhniy wrote. “We believe in the best. We already deserve it.”

How Zelensky handles his planned shuffle will go some way to shaping the next phase of the war, which is looking arduous for Ukraine. After a counteroffensive last year failed to win back significant parts of the 20% of Ukraine occupied by Russia, Ukraine is short on ammunition, equipment and personnel. That is allowing Russian troops to advance in the east and northeast, albeit incrementally as they are held back by dogged Ukrainian defense and their own tactical shortcomings.

In the interview, Zelensky touted a recent Ukrainian attack using naval drones that sank a Russian warship. The threat from drones has severely limited Russia’s use of its Black Sea Fleet and allowed Ukraine to significantly increase trade from its main southern port of Odesa.

Zelensky has continued to display the bravery that won him praise at home and abroad. On Sunday, he visited Ukrainian troops in the village of Robotyne, retaken in last year’s counteroffensive in the southeast but now under heavy Russian attack. Wearing body armor in a dimly lit bunker, he handed awards to soldiers and thanked them for their service.

“I want you to know that all reasonable people in the world know you have the toughest task, and that all Ukrainians are proud of you,” he said.

Attracting more support from the West is proving particularly difficult after Ukraine’s battlefield failure last year and amid internal discord among partners that Zelensky can do little or nothing to resolve.

That mood change was evident when Zelensky visited the U.S. in December. A year earlier, he had been welcomed with a standing ovation as he spoke in Congress. This time, some Republican lawmakers were less enthusiastic and conditioned further aid on changes to tighten security at the U.S. border.

“It’s the same old stuff. There’s nothing new,” said Sen. Eric Schmitt (R., Mo.) after a meeting with Zelensky. Schmitt said his constituents didn’t support more aid for Ukraine while the border situation remained unresolved. Zelensky told reporters that talks in Washington had been constructive.

In Europe, too, Zelensky’s luster has faded. When he was preparing to fly to Brussels on Dec. 13 to try to persuade the European Union to sign off on billions in aid and launch membership talks, he received a phone call from Charles Michel, the EU’s top official, with a blunt message: Don’t come.

Michel, backed by the leaders of France and Germany, had decided that his presence would be more of a hindrance than a help in trying to persuade Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban to lift his veto on the decisions.

Zelensky was irritated, a senior EU official said. But after Orban acquiesced to membership talks the following day, Zelensky told Michel it had been the right call. A spokesman for Zelensky didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Some Western allies complain that Kyiv hasn’t laid out clear war aims. Zelensky has repeatedly said that Ukraine will retake all occupied territory and called for optimism. “We should all be leaders of victory, not lose hope, become disheartened,” he said in the TV interview.

Zaluzhniy has offered a more sober public view, describing the situation as a stalemate and calling for a major upgrade to military capabilities and more soldiers.

In a column for CNN published last week, Zaluzhniy complained about bottlenecks in military production and the government’s inability to significantly increase numbers of military personnel.