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Zelenskyy replaces Ukraine's army's leader almost 2 years into war with Russia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he is sidelining his military commander as Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches its third year.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, Zelenskyy posted on X that the country's army needs a, quote, "renewal" and that he asked his outgoing general to remain part of the team.

INSKEEP: Christopher Miller joins us next. He's a reporter for the Financial Times based in Kyiv and author of the book "The War Came To Us: Life And Death In Ukraine." Mr. Miller, welcome back.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so the general on the way out is Valerii Zaluzhnyi. He's very popular. So why get rid of him now?

MILLER: He was. You know, Ukraine's war effort right now is stalled and in a bit of trouble. The country's big counteroffensive last year failed to achieve its goals. It's running low on ammunition, on troops. It's on the defensive while Russia has seized the initiative on the battlefield and is on the attack. So Zelenskyy thinks it's time right now to reboot his army command and hopefully turn around Ukraine's fortunes to see some progress this year.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think this through, however. If there's a shortage of ammunition, that's not necessarily the general's fault. You could say that it's the fault of the United States for not shipping enough, Ukraine's allies for not shipping enough. What would point a finger of blame at the general himself?

MILLER: Right. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the now former top general, was in charge of the counteroffensive. And him and Zelenskyy were at odds at times about how to conduct that counteroffensive. The United States was advising Kyiv and Ukraine on what to do. Zaluzhnyi was listening to some of that, but also implementing some of his own experiences on the battlefield. President Zelenskyy is seen as having made some political decisions about how things were to be done and having gone around Valerii Zaluzhnyi to speak with his other commanders on the battlefield. So that's where some of the points of tension come in between the two, Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy.

INSKEEP: I'm also remembering, if I'm not mistaken, that Zelenskyy is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, the American president during the Civil War who changed generals again and again and again until he found somebody who could win.

So the new guy is Oleksandr Syrskyi. What do you know about him?

MILLER: Yeah. You know, Zelenskyy does like change. He has changed over his government a few times, even before the full-scale invasion. So he's choosing Oleksandr Syrskyi now. Syrskyi is seen as a close ally of Zelenskyy. The president believes he can trust him to carry out his orders. It's true that he's an experienced career commander who has been involved in many battles before, including in Russia's first invasion in 2014.

But he's deeply unpopular with the rank-and-file troops who call him the butcher because they say he's kept brigades too long in battles where they should've been pulled out, costing valuable lives and ammunition. The best example of that was the Battle of Bakhmut that saw Russia destroy the city before capturing it last year.

INSKEEP: Personnel aside, is it clear that the Ukrainian government has a strategy that they think can work to win the war given the various limitations of ammunition and everything else that they face?

MILLER: It's working on a clear and consistent strategy. At the moment, it is taking what Syrskyi is calling an active defense approach. So that is actually similar to what Russia did last year in digging in deeper, fortifying its front-line positions, rebuilding its military and its brigades. Ukraine is hoping that it can train some new troops this year, again, fortify its positions and essentially put itself in a stronger position than it is now to go on the counteroffensive either later this year or in 2025.

INSKEEP: So a defensive phase now, possibly offensive in the future. Mr. Miller, thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Christopher Miller of the Financial Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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