Alexander Nepogodin: As the media speculates about plots to oust Zelensky, how secure is Ukraine's Western-backed leader?
As fighting rages on in Ukraine, President Vladimir Zelensky seems determined to consolidate power. It's part of a process that began long before Russia launched its military offensive in February.
The Western-backed leader has suppressed criticism and clamped down on the opposition; beyond that, he is purging the political arena of allegedly ‘disloyal’ people who, until recently, had appeared to be close associates and allies. For example not long ago, Prosecutor-General Irina Venediktova and the head of Ukraine’s Security Service Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelensky, were both fired from their posts. However, it appears that the president remains deeply vulnerable to political intrigues within the country’s elites.
In light of recent developments, both Western and Ukrainian media often claim Kiev's military is dissatisfied with the situation in the country. Journalists have even named a possible post-conflict successor to the ‘Ukrainian Churchill,’ as Zelensky is sometimes called – namely, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valery Zaluzhny.
Zelensky himself dismisses these claims as speculation, an attempt to promote hostile narratives and ‘rock the boat.’
Here, RT explores the reasons behind the escalating tensions between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, and explains why Ukraine appears to be drifting toward dictatorship.
There's a rumor circulating in the media that Zelensky is willing to remove Zaluzhny. The Telegraph portal speculates that he will probably be replaced by Commander of the Ground Forces Alexander Syrsky. Meanwhile, Zaluzhny, whose popularity with the Ukrainian people is growing rapidly, is likely to be appointed minister of defense, the story goes.
Formally, this would be a promotion for the incumbent commander-in-chief, but in reality it means losing control and influence over the army, because, according to Ukrainian law, the minister of defense must be a civilian.
Another possible, widely publicized, scenario is that the current Minister of Defense, Aleksey Reznikov, will head the government while Zaluzhny takes over defense and the present Chief of Defense Intelligence, Kirill Budanov, will replace Zaluzhny as commander-in-chief.
The Telegraph suggests the motive behind such potential machinations is jealousy.
“It’s not about ratings. Zelensky and Zaluzhny have perfectly fine relations, but you see, the victory can only be ‘fathered’ by one man,” a Ukrainian MP told the news portal.
Zaluzhny reportedly doesn’t welcome any such changes but despite this, rotations in the country’s military leadership could take place as early as this month.
A conflict between the Ukrainian president and his military commanders has become a topic for discussion in Russia as well. In response to projections in several Western media outlets about conflict-resolution scenarios, the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev shared his own vision of the situation. He believes there is but a “one and a half scenario” – “a military coup in Ukraine followed by recognition of the special operation’s results.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has recently joined the chorus of voices discussing a possible conflict between Zelensky and Ukraine’s top military commanders led by Zaluzhny. “Ukraine is being carved up, and a conflict is brewing between the president and the military. They are the only ones who can slam their fists on the table and say, ‘Let’s reach agreement, otherwise Ukraine will be wiped off from the face of the earth.’ The outcome is close. The president can’t say a word there any longer, nothing depends on the president in Ukraine now, but on the military,” Lukashenko said.
Both Zelensky and Zaluzhny deny the existence of any conflict between them. Ukraine’s administration asserts that these rumors are nothing more than hostile propaganda, deliberately spread to sow dissent within the country’s top military apparatus. Zelensky himself has publicly stated that Zaluzhny and the team are doing their job well. “No, I have no plans to reassign him to a different position (...). We’ve got a team. Is the team doing its job well? As you can see, we are still holding strong. So, yes, they are doing a good job. And once we are victorious, I’ll be the first to praise them,” said Zelensky in response to a question from the media.
The press interpreted these statements in their own way: rumors quickly began to spread that Zelensky had refused to replace Zaluzhny, fearing a blow to his own reputation. Many believe that the Ukrainian President's Office wants to suppress the narrative about Zaluzhny becoming a viable opponent to Zelensky, an ‘inconvenient’ ally. Essentially, Zelensky wants to create a scenario in which his top military man could be removed from the political scene: it is much harder to fire Zaluzhny when his name is all over the internet. Ironically, it could be social media that ‘insures’ the commander-in-chief against a potential discharge.
Curiously, speculation about the conflict between Zelensky and Zaluzhny is blamed not on external, but domestic forces. Back in early August, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) uncovered a clandestine ‘bot farm’ involved in domestic propaganda, which the media linked to affiliates of former President Pyotr Poroshenko. One of its media campaigns was said to be aimed at “spreading information about a conflict between the leadership of the Office of the President of Ukraine and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. It was alleged that there was also a campaign to discredit the First Lady.
In light of these findings, an adviser to Zelensky, Aleksey Arestovich, accused the opposition, and specifically the European Solidarity party run by Poroshenko, of pursuing its own political ambitions that would “drag Ukraine again into a political crisis that will lead to a military defeat.”
According to Arestovich, media operations run by the ‘bot farmers’ slowed down weapons deliveries to Ukraine and promoted the narrative of a brewing conflict between Zelensky and Zaluzhny. “The people in the opposition fail to realize that this sort of work could cost more for Ukraine than direct attacks by Russian troops. A lack of unity between the government and the army, between the government and the people, is a sure path toward statelessness and defeat (...). This is a purely domestic hoax, circulated in the media since April or so. Russian propaganda has picked up these fakes and spun them to their advantage. They benefit from advancing this narrative,” he said.
A New Hero Arises
Whatever the case, as open hostilities continue in Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny finds his popularity steadily growing, and not only among Ukrainians. Recently, major stories have been published in Western media glorifying the man, calling him ‘the iron general’; they also predict that he could take over as president after Zelensky. The German newspaper Bild, for example, published an article saying that “the general gives Ukraine hope” and is a hero not only for the soldiers, but also for a large part of the population.
“Observers believe that the acclaimed general will replace current President Vladimir Zelensky once the war is over,” writes Bild. The newspaper also hints at potential tensions between the president and the general, noting that “incumbent President Zelensky is not particularly happy about the speculations that he may one day leave the presidential residence.”
Bild is not the only Western media outlet to have praised Zaluzhny. Earlier, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published an extensive piece about the general, calling him “the first ataman (meaning ‘chieftain’) of Ukraine.”
Essentially, the newspaper bestowed on him the title once held by Semyon Petliura – head of the Directorate of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919-1920 and an ally to the Poles. “If Michelangelo were to carve a figure of General Zaluzhny based on his publications on the Internet, the result would be a mix between David and Moses,” the newspaper writes, noting that ordinary Ukrainians view the general as a celebrity figure.
While glorifying Zaluzhny, Western media started to pillory Zelensky. A series of articles were published bashing the president. The German newspaper Die Welt, The New York Times, Sky News Australia all accused Ukraine’s president of being uncooperative in the international arena, of abetting corruption within Ukraine, exhausting the country's armed forces, and launching a ‘draconian’ mobilization effort.
Amid all this, Zaluzhny became more and more concerned with his own political image. As Bild published its complimentary article about the general, he released a lengthy video message to his compatriots in celebration of Ukraine’s Independence Day – at the same time as Zelensky published his own address to the nation. The video consisted of Zaluzhny’s quotes interspersed with lines from Ukraine’s servicemen. “How do you know you are truly independent?” asks Zaluzhny.
“Our independence was gifted to us. Real independence is earned in blood,” answers a soldier in the video.
“Those who fight for it know what it tastes like. It tastes of earth, of blood and death that permeates the air,” Zaluzhny says. The soldiers in the video talk about the importance of unity for the sake of victory; they talk about strength, resilience and of their willingness to defend their homeland.
Another Great Purge?
As rumors spread about the removal of Zaluzhny, Ukrainian media has become flooded with reports of an imminent reshuffle in the government. High-ranking sources of the popular Strana.ua (banned by Zelensky) claim that, although the Office of the President of Ukraine has not yet finalized the list of new appointments, they are expecting some high-profile resignations: there is a strong possibility that some ministers will be fired and even [Prime Minister] Denis Shmigal’s government will be dissolved.
Back in late July, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Alexei Danilov announced that firing Venediktova and Bakanov was just the beginning. “I’ve heard some names, but I prefer to work with actual documents. Most likely, these were not the only people to be removed, and we will see some more developments soon,” Danilov commented.
Removing Bakanov and Venediktova was the most high-profile sacking since the start of the military operation. Zelensky said his decision was motivated by the large number of traitors in the SBU and the prosecutor-general’s office. According to the president, more than sixty SBU agents remained in territories occupied by Russian troops and started working against Ukraine’s interests. Overall, local law enforcers are investigating hundreds of cases of alleged treason and collaborationism.
One of the loudest investigations is against the former head of the SBU Crimea Office, based in Kherson, which Ukraine lost control of back in March. Local government spokesman Aleksandr Samoilenko accused the branch of treason, saying its officers had betrayed Ukraine by revealing a network of minefields to Russia and providing assistance to its air force. Similar charges were brought against former SBU internal security chief General Andrey Naumov, who fled Ukraine but was detained in Serbia in June.
Bakanov and Zelensky were partners in a television production studio, Kvartal 95. He later headed Zelensky’s electoral staff and was the leader of his party Servant of the People. Venediktova had been Zelensky’s ally well before his presidency and also headed Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation. However, it seems that even close personal connections to the president could not help the two avoid the boot.
At the same time, the SBU launched a criminal investigation into former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Major General Sergey Krivonos, recently criticized by Zelensky for commenting on the military leadership. Notably, Krivonos is a somewhat popular figure in Ukraine. Back in 2019, he registered as candidate for the presidency, but he later withdrew in favor of Poroshenko.
Krivonos believes the persecution against him was ordered by Zelensky, on account of the major-general’s popularity, especially with the military. “The top leadership of the SBU were frank about it when they told me: Supreme Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Zelensky issued an illegal order to revoke my enlistment into the military so as to prevent Valery Zaluzhny from appointing me to senior positions. Zelensky views me as a rival. Before the war, I was dismissed from the army over my criticism of Zelensky’s inaction in the defense sphere and the failure of the Office of the President and the Ministry of Defense to prepare Ukraine for Russian aggression,” Krivonos claimed.
He said that in the early days of Russia’s military operation, Zaluzhny had verbally instructed him to defend Kiev’s Zhuliany airport and then issued a personal order confirming Krivonos’s authority to do so. But in late March, it turned out that the order to enlist Krivonos had been canceled. “I found out from the army leadership that this was done by order of Commander-in-Chief Zelensky. My sources told me plainly: ‘The people at the top believe that victory is at hand, and that after the war there should be only one war hero – the Supreme Commander. He thinks you will get in his way,’” Krivonos said.
The Road to Authoritarianism
However, so far, Zelensky’s popularity, having now firmly established his image as the ‘Ukrainian Churchill,’ continues to remain high: more than 90% of Ukrainians trust him. Moreover, the country’s population is not against bolstering authoritarian tendencies. According to a survey from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 58% of Ukrainians believe that having a strong leader is more important for the country than democracy. Only 14% of respondents think democracy is still more important. At the same time, 62% of respondents say that, in the current situation, even constructive criticism of the Ukrainian government should not be allowed, and all parties and political forces should unite to support Zelensky.
All this provides Zelensky with great opportunities for consolidating power – a trend that began long before the outbreak of hostilities. The process of tightening the screws began back in 2020, when pressure was brought to bear on political opponents, and continued with bans on media outlets outside of the government's control, including pro-Russian ones. This was accompanied by a campaign against shadow economic elites and organized crime gangs, as well as various kinds of smugglers. Then Zelensky began to mop up potential internal challengers. This is evidenced, for example, by the resignation of Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, in the fall of 2021.
In parallel, all of Zelensky’s key opponents in government have had problems with law enforcement agencies. These include Yulia Tymoshenko, Pyotr Poroshenko, Vitali Klitschko, Viktor Medvedchuk, and Anatoly Shariy. In October of 2021, Dmitry Razumkov was removed from his post as Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. There were strategic motives behind this move from the very beginning, namely, eliminating competitors for Zelensky’s second term. Razumkov could have become a potential ‘new Zelensky,’ or might at least have split the current team during new presidential elections. It was Razumkov who had long been second inside the party in power, in terms of ratings and position in the political system.
Personal relationships also play a part in this situation. During the last year before his dismissal, Razumkov refrained from supporting the decisions of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC), the president’s advisory agency, and, instead, came out with his own initiatives on key issues: The Constitutional Court of Ukraine, land reform, illegal enrichment, and de-oligarchization. In other words, Razumkov had his own position and proposals, and they were often the ones that passed through parliament, and not ones Zelensky wanted to accept. This ended up spoiling their relationship.
The campaign against the opposition has led to significant changes in Ukraine’s political processes, with the center of power shifting towards the executive branch and even the law enforcement sector. In particular, most decision-making authority has moved to one specific body – the NSDC – whose composition Zelensky personally determines and whose decisions are put into effect by his decree. And thanks to the law ‘On Sanctions,’ which allows economic restrictions to be imposed on any Ukrainian considered a threat to ‘national security,’ the NSDC’s powers have become nearly limitless. All accounts and assets of a person falling under such sanctions are blocked, and it becomes impossible for them to conduct financial activities.
If we add to this the draft law ‘On Media,’ according to which even unregistered media outlets that distribute objectionable information are subject to blocking, a curious picture emerges. Zelensky is rigidly and uncompromisingly centralizing power, and decisions bypass the existing – albeit not ideal, but functioning – legal system. And in this sense, the answer to the question of what changes may occur in Ukraine’s top echelons of power during Russia’s military operation is unambiguous. Anything is possible.
After all, as the history of Zelensky’s relations with his inner circle demonstrates, the Ukrainian president believes that he is the sole power in the country – he is the team, and others are just his assistants. All this resulted in an internal political crisis back in 2021. The fact that the West’s honeymoon with Zelensky appears to be nearly over also increases the likelihood that a large-scale crisis looms on the horizon, at a crucial moment for Ukraine as an independent country. There has been more and more criticism of Zelensky as of late, and the search for new heroes has become more active. Another power struggle likely lies ahead.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.