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The Guardian view on Ukraine’s president and general: the military and political blur | Editorial

The Guardian view on Ukraine’s president and general: the military and political blur | Editorial
The Guardian view on Ukraine’s president and general: the military and political blur | Editorial

Politics doesn’t end in wartime, even when it has been subsumed by more immediate, existential matters. With the passage of time, Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership can appear as if it were unassailable – yet in reality, criticism grew loud enough that the House of Commons held two votes of confidence in 1942.

Though some have compared Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Churchill, the Ukrainian president will be grateful that he has not faced anything approaching that kind of challenge. The “rally round the flag” effect, along with his charisma, effective diplomacy and personal courage as Russia invaded, created a remarkably enduring mood of national unity. Even those criticising the decisions or conduct of those around the president shrank from questioning his. But by last autumn, it was clear that the country was seeing the return of politics. It is still far from business as usual. But Mr Zelenskiy’s decision to fire Ukraine’s admired commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, on Thursday has turned up the volume.

Mr Zelenskiy says politics played no part. But he has not explained the move beyond citing the need for “renewal” in the armed forces. Disagreements between the men over strategy and tactics were open knowledge and it was widely reported last week that the president had asked for the general’s resignation. Military decisions can be political and economic too – like Mr Zaluzhnyi’s desire to mobilise half a million troops, which his boss regarded as unrealistic.

The president was also reportedly annoyed when the general said the war had reached a stalemate in an interview late last year. That was seen as unhelpful to the diplomatic push for more arms donations, and as venturing on to political turf. The general is wildly popular in Ukraine and aides explored a future political career even as he denied an interest, according to The Showman, a new biography of Mr Zelenskiy by the journalist Simon Shuster.

It is hard to see the change of command transforming Ukraine’s fortunes on the battlefield, not least because Gen Zaluzhnyi’s replacement, Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces, has a mixed record and at best a mixed reputation among troops. But curiously, it is also hard to see much political benefit to Mr Zelenskiy. Gen Syrskyi is seen as the president’s man, and as lacking political ambition. Gen Zaluzhnyi will be out of the spotlight, but equally will not take the blame for any future military shortcomings. His departure also encourages discussion of whether the president is willing to accept questioning of his decisions.

While some western officials have expressed concern about the change of personnel, Mr Zaluzhnyi’s removal is more likely to be a pretext than a reason for Republicans in the US to block further aid: wrangling over the $60bn aid package continues. This is primarily a domestic issue.

As war grinds on, the toll grows, and hopes of a breakthrough fade into memory, it is hardly surprising that grumbling increases, that scrutiny of Kyiv’s decisions grows more marked, and that politicians and oligarchs look to their own interests again. Yet people are still anxious not to be exploited by Russia’s propaganda mill. There are no calls for the elections which would, without the war, have taken place this spring. Criticism and challenge are a normal part of political life, even in abnormal times – and Churchill resoundingly won those votes in 1942. But leaders need to show that they are listening.

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