Ukraine’s ‘iron general’ is a hero, but he’s no star
Washington, Moscow and most of the world expected Russia to demolish Ukraine’s military within days.
But not Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who has orchestrated and led the fight that has left Russian forces bloody, beaten and in messy retreat.
If a single person can be credited with Ukraine’s surprising military successes so far — protecting Kyiv, the capital, and holding most other major cities amid an onslaught — it is Zaluzhnyy, a round-faced 48-year-old general who was born into a military family, and appointed as his country’s top uniformed commander by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July 2021. Zaluzhnny and other Ukrainian commanders had been preparing for a full-on war with Russia since 2014.
Unlike, say, “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. troops in the first Persian Gulf War, or David Petraeus, who presided over the Iraq war and was nicknamed “King David,” Zaluzhnyy has largely avoided the spectacle of a celebrity commander — deferring that role to Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian who has captured the public’s imagination.
In many ways Zaluzhnyy epitomizes a new generation of Ukrainian officers who cut their teeth in the grinding eight-year war in Donbas and, when not on the front, deployed to training ranges across Europe to drill with NATO forces —experiences that have sanded off many of the authoritarian edges produced by decades of rigid Soviet military training.
That collaboration with NATO has molded a group of professional-minded officers that aspired to Western standards and helped build a decentralized, empowered, more agile way of warfare than the Russian model, which has floundered in the Ukrainian mud.
“I can probably talk about [Zaluzhnyy] not just as a single person but as a representative of the new generation of Ukrainian military — senior, middle level and even low level officers,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukrainian air force officer who is now co-director of foreign relations and international security programs at the Razumkov Centre, a Kyiv-based think tank.
In September 2021, two months before U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration began issuing loud warnings of a Russian invasion and sharing intelligence about the troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders, Zaluzhnyy described preparing for an attack.
“I have always been talking about this since I took office — because this is a threat of full-scale aggression,” Zaluzhnyy said in an interview with Radio Svoboda at the time. “Accordingly, our task as the Armed Forces is not to wait for manna from heaven. We must prepare for this. And we do everything for this. For our part, we are conducting a set of exercises, including our Western partners, including NATO members, as well as NATO partners. We are doing everything possible to make the enemy, so to speak, less willing to implement such a scenario.”
In January, Zaluzhnyy spoke to NATO’s Military Committee, the alliance’s top body of uniformed officers, and told them Ukraine’s military was ready.
“I reminded the allies that our war has been going on since 2014, and we have been doing our job ever since,” he told the national news agency Ukrinform after the meeting.
To much of the world’s horror, the scenario of “full-scale aggression” became reality on Feb. 24 as Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv and missiles hit targets across Ukraine. But preparation for wider combat had been ongoing since Russian troops stormed into Crimea in 2014, annexing the peninsula and turning Donbas into permanent combat zone.
Over the next years, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Poland, Lithuania and other NATO allies opened training centers in western Ukraine, including for special operations forces.
That training and battlefield experience against the Russians and their separatist proxies in Donbas allowed commanders of small, dispersed units to think for themselves, overturning the old Soviet model of top-down leadership that has paralyzed Russian units and forced top generals to venture to the front lines, where several have been killed.
“The Ukrainians are able to stay nimble,” a U.S. defense official told POLITICO, who like other current and former U.S. military officials requested anonymity to discuss assessments of how the war is going, and Ukrainian capabilities. Since 2014, Ukrainians “can better adapt and react with initiative in a way that it could not before,” the official said, adding that flexibility has been a game-changer so far against a Russian onslaught that has fielded “a larger, more capable force — who is all about its rigid plan.”
Zaluzhnyy started life as a military baby, born in July 1973 when his father was stationed at a garrison in Novohrad-Volyns’kyi, a town in Zhytomyr region in northern Ukraine, roughly 150 miles west of Kyiv.
He attended the Institute of Land Forces of the Odesa Military Academy and the National Defense Academy in Kyiv, where he completed his studies in 2007. A series of posts followed, including as commander of a mechanized brigade. Zaluzhnyy then returned to the academy for more training and graduated in 2014, a few months after the Maidan Revolution led then-President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, and as war was intensifying in Donbas.
Sent east to lead combat units in active fighting, Zaluzhnyy commanded a brigade that deployed in August 2014 to Debaltseve, the site of some of the war’s bloodiest battles and where Ukrainian forces took heavy casualties. The urgent need to avoid further losses in Debaltseve ultimately put added pressure on then-President Petro Poroshenko to sign the Minsk 2 peace accords on terms that proved unfavorable.
In 2019, Zaluzhnyy was named head of the Ukrainian military’s North Operational Command, stationed in Chernihiv, his mother’s native city in northern Ukraine, near the Belarusian border, where he had spent a lot of time as a child.
In a February 2020 interview with ArmyInform, a military news site, Zaluzhnyy described how it was his childhood “dream” to become a soldier and that he never expected to be a top commander.
“My promotion was like a normal soldier. I was appointed — I took up my duties, took office, was offered another — also moved,” he said. “I never thought that one day I would become a general and reach high ranks.”
Zaluzhnyy’s elevation to the top job was also a key part of an effort to restructure the leadership dividing operational duties and the planning responsibilities within the general staff. It also conceded with a broader modernization campaign in which the Ukrainian military, adopted new, more creative fighting techniques based on combat experience against a real, rather than theoretical, enemy.
“We want to move away from maps — from writing battle orders of, say, 1943,” Zaluzhnyy said in the ArmyInform interview.
The irony, however, is that Zaluzhnyy is now fighting an enemy that, in some respects at least, often looks more 1943 than it does 2022.
vTanks and armored vehicles have fired away at each other in open fields and small villages, reminiscent of the ugliest battles in World War II. But using drones to obliterate logistics columns or adjust fire for Ukrainian artillery batteries miles away from the front also offer a glimpse into a way of fighting that analysts have talked about for years, but are only now being put to use in Ukraine.
A former U.S. special forces officer, who saw the change in Ukrainian special operations forces over the years, said by 2020, the Ukrainian commandos “looked, smelled and tasted like Western SoF.”
The searing, daily combat experience in Donbas over the past eight years has meant that those troops closest to the fight saw first hand how individual initiative in small unit combat is key.
Those young soldiers and their officers “were the ones burned from the experience and [who] realized ‘hey, we can’t have everything go to the general before we make a decision,’” said retired U.S. Army Col. Liam Collins, who worked as the top aide to John Abizaid, the retired four-star who then-President Barack Obama sent to Kyiv to advise the Ukrainian military leadership from 2016 to 2018.
That combat and the hands-on training by NATO in western Ukraine spawned a new generation of small-unit leaders and noncommissioned officers who can think and act independently. The changes weren’t immediate, but the hard-won knowledge from regular skirmishes quickened a “cultural change at the battalion level on down,” Collins said. “An entire generation understood how to lead, and I think the generals understood that it worked.”
A modern lieutenant general
Zaluzhnyy has said that the Ukrainian military is filled with young, professional soldiers and future leaders. “These are completely different people — not like us when we were lieutenants. These are new sprouts that will completely change the army in five years. Almost everyone knows a foreign language well, works well with gadgets, they are well-read,” he told ArmyInform. “New sergeants. These are not scapegoats, as in the Russian army, for example, but real helpers who will soon replace officers.”
“We have already started this movement, and there is no way back,” he added. “Even society will not allow us to return to the army in 2013.”
The hit-and-run tactics used by Ukrainian soldiers this year have had a stunning impact, blunting the Russian military machine in very real ways. Of the 120 battalion tactical groups Russia pushed into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 40 of them — including those that led the assault on Kyiv and Chernihiv — have retreated to Belarus to refit.
As many as 29 of those groups are currently incapable of fighting due to the massive losses suffered at the hands of small teams of Ukrainians armed with Western-provided anti-armor weapons. It could take up to four weeks for some of those units to refit and be ready to deploy to eastern Ukraine, one Western official confirmed to POLITICO.
The thousands of Javelin, Stinger, Panzerfaust and other anti-armor and air missiles provided by NATO countries have become a staple of social media feeds, spawning memes, t-shirts and music videos, but the cultural changes within the Ukrainian military have arguably made a bigger impact on the battlefield. NATO exercises have been a key element in the relentless work to eliminate any trace of “Sovok” thinking — the Soviet mentality that left a legacy of corruption and complacency, and which persisted for nearly a quarter-century after independence.
“Their infantry, artillery, innovative skill and being able to use drones and synchronize them was pretty impressive,” said a former U.S. officer who has made multiple trips to Ukraine to advise the military, and who requested anonymity to speak about the training mission. “Their special forces and airborne forces were excellent. There was a part of me, that when I first got there, that made me think they were more Soviet than even the Russian army. But over time, you could see the change.”
Melnyk, the air force officer turned analyst, said the battlefield successes, including in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, were a direct result of the military modernization.
“NATO tactics [and] the training were adjusted to the Ukrainian realities — and that’s why it has produced quite an impressive result,” Melnyk said. “We saw Russians moving these huge columns … it looks like World War II tactics. Instead, Ukrainians used the advantage — they knew the terrain. They have these mobile units and strike and hit.”
Bars, not stars
Zaluzhnyy’s appointment as commander in chief was itself a part of a larger overhaul of the Ukrainian military. Zelenskyy named him to the top operational position in July 2021. It came following a major shake-up in the defense ministry, and coincided with a restructuring of the military’s uniformed command to separate operations from policy positions, not unlike how the U.S. military clearly defines duties and responsibilities.
“The president wants to see synergy between the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy’s press secretary, Sergey Nikiforov said at the time. “Unfortunately, we do not see such synergy. We see conflicts.”
Zaluzhnyy would later sum up his role in succinct terms. “Now, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I am responsible for combat readiness, training and the use of the Armed Forces,” he told Radio Svoboda in the September interview.
Since the start of the large-scale Russian attack at the end of February, Zaluzhnyy has shunned most interviews, and made relatively few public appearances while issuing occasional public statements via his Facebook page.
Some of these posts are short operational updates, about the downing of Russian fighters or the destruction of a Russian tank column. Others are just quick messages, thanking military doctors, for instance, or sending inspiration to troops and the Ukrainian public.
March 22: “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are the shield of Europe”
March 27: “The price of freedom is high. Keep this in mind!”
April 2: “Ukrainians have forgotten to be afraid. Our goal is to win.”
But other posts are lengthy, including a readout on Sunday of his phone conversation with U.S. Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, with whom he has been in regular contact.
Over the years, Zaluzhnyy made no secret of his push for greater financing and other public support for the military. But during the war, his main request of political leaders has been to stay out of the way and let the soldiers do their work — and especially not to raise public doubts about the course of the war.
“I want to address politicians who, in the back cities, talk about ‘betrayal’ and make ‘assessments’ of the operational environment,” Zaluzhnyy wrote.
“With your irresponsible statements, for example, ‘the opponent has taken something somehow without a problem’ or someone ‘is preparing to surrender the country,’ you are insulting our soldiers,” he said, ripping into Ukraine’s second-guessing politicians.
He said Ukraine’s troops had stopped the second most powerful army in the world. “We stopped the opponent in all directions,” he wrote. “We have caused them losses they never saw or could imagine. All Ukrainians know about this. The world knows about this.”
While the commander in chief has sought to avoid any celebrity star status, the success so far in pushing back the Russian invaders makes it inevitable that he will enter Ukrainian military lore as a historic figure. And a recent patriotic video even suggested a nickname that in Ukrainian rhymes as well as Stormin’ Norman: Zalizni Nezlamnyy Zaluzhnyy — “Iron Unbreakable” Zaluzhnyy.