He deftly defended his country in Europe’s largest ground war in decades, stalling Russia’s invasion and then pushing it back with everything at hand: natural barriers like rivers, aging weapons and lethal drones, trickery and elements of surprise.
But the fate of Ukraine’s top commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, now appears to be hanging by a thread — not over his standing in the army, where he is well regarded, but over tensions with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The president’s frustrations have mounted since it became clear in the fall that Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive, a push that started with high hopes for Ukraine and its backers, had failed. The fighting has since bogged down in bloody, static trench warfare.
Should Mr. Zelensky dismiss the general, it could create a host of problems for him both in the war and at home. Although Mr. Zelensky embodies his country’s resistance to Russian aggression to many of his supporters abroad, the general is widely hailed as a hero in Ukraine.
His portrait hangs in coffee shops and bars. Online, he is the subject of countless patriotic memes. Public opinion polls over the fall showed his popularity exceeded Mr. Zelensky’s — a reason, analysts and opposition politicians have said, for the men’s increasingly strained relationship, though the general has never voiced political ambitions.
Military analysts have credited the general with preparing the army in the weeks and days before the invasion, even as Mr. Zelensky’s government publicly downplayed the odds of a Russian attack. General Zaluzhny oversaw not only the defense of the capital, Kyiv, but also the campaigns that thwarted the initial invasion and retook hundreds of square miles.
Their disagreements aside, Mr. Zelensky would lose military advice from an experienced commander if he were to fire the general. The United States and other allies would need to adjust to working with new military leaders, and a dismissal could fuel worries of instability in Ukraine’s wartime leadership.
And on the battlefield, Ukraine is in a precarious position, facing intensified Russian assaults in the southeast and uncertainty over whether the United States and Europe will provide more military and financial support. In the event of a shake-up, it is not clear that a new top commander could quickly win the admiration that many officers and soldiers have for General Zaluzhny. Junior officers would also probably be shuffled, too, disrupting military plans, at least temporarily.
Still, tensions over military progress have bubbled behind the scenes between the president and the general for more than a year, sometimes erupting into public. The strains reached a fever pitch on Monday, with reports in the Ukrainian news media that Mr. Zelensky had fired or intended to fire General Zaluzhny.
Mr. Zelensky’s spokesman, Serhiy Nikiforov, denied any firing at the time. “There was no dismissal,” he said.
But a member of Parliament said Mr. Zelensky had asked for the general’s resignation at a meeting Monday evening, and that the general had refused. And a senior military officer who has worked in the general staff headquarters said the president’s office was still considering a dismissal.
More broadly, speculation lingered in Ukraine over the icy relations between the two most important men overseeing Ukraine’s war effort.
“In peace and war, tensions are always present in civil-military relationships,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a research group, wrote in an analysis of the situation.
“One thing above all others should be remembered,” Mr. Ryan wrote. “In democracies, civilian-military relationships is an unequal dialogue. The civilian leader always has primacy.”
General Zaluzhny, whom Mr. Zelensky appointed commander of the military’s general staff in 2021, won praise from Ukrainians for his leadership in the war’s first year. Before Russia invaded in February 2022, he ordered jets to reserve airfields and troops out of barracks — escaping Russian bombs once the assault began.
Commanding from a bunker in Kyiv, General Zaluzhny pursued a strategy that drew the more powerful Russian Army deep into Ukrainian territory, attenuating its supply lines, which he then attacked with sabotage groups and artillery. Ukrainian engineers blew up hundreds of bridges and dams, leaving Russians on roads that ended at muddy riverbanks or beside newly formed lakes.
And in counterattacks, General Zaluzhny focused on striking supply lines in the southern Kherson region, telegraphing for months a major effort to liberate the region. He also prepared a surprise attack in the northeast that quickly reclaimed hundreds of square miles.
Movement stalled after the Kherson campaign, which ended in November 2022. The front line barely shifted through two failed Russian pushes, and tensions between the general and president began to surface after Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive last summer.
Mr. Zelensky’s frustration burst into public view in November, after General Zaluzhny published an essay in The Economist saying the war was at a “stalemate.” The Ukrainian president suggested the comment was helpful to Russia, a striking rebuke.
Around the same time, the president’s office replaced one of General Zaluzhny’s deputies, the head of special operations forces, without explanation. It also dismissed the head of Ukraine’s medical forces.