As Ukraine fights against a fierce Russian offensive and its leaders wait to see whether their Western allies will approve more than $100 billion in much-needed assistance, the government in Kyiv is dealing with a festering distraction: tumult in its top ranks centered on the fate of the top military commander.
Speculation raged this week in political and military circles, the news media and online that President Volodymyr Zelensky had fired the commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, with rumors becoming so widespread that the president’s office was forced to issue a public denial.
“There was no dismissal,” the president’s spokesman, Serhiy Nikiforov, told the Ukrainian media on Monday.
The curt response only fueled further speculation, and on Tuesday the capital was still consumed with whether the general would be staying or going. Neither the president’s office or the military command provided any new information.
A former senior Ukrainian official said Mr. Zelensky’s government had been planning on dismissing the general, but backed off Monday evening when the news was leaked. Now they were slowing down the process, the official said.
A Ukrainian member of Parliament who had been briefed on the plans gave a similar account, saying the two men met Monday night but no decision was made. One of the sticking points for the government was that there was no immediate replacement to take General Zaluzhny’s place, the person said.
Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal military matters.
The tumult in Ukraine’s wartime leadership comes as the Russians maintain a sustained push around the eastern town of Avdiivka, where its forces have mounted wave after wave of attacks since early October.
Last week, Russian soldiers managed to make an incursion into the southern edge of the city, using drainage tunnels to get in behind the defenses and ambush Ukrainian forces.
Pitched battles are now being fought to dislodge the Russians. Soldiers fighting around the city — where around 1,000 civilians remain even as the Russians steadily raze the ground — said that the Russian thrust does not yet threaten vital supply lines but reflected the Russian desire to take the city at apparently any cost.
Removing General Zaluzhny could also lead to a thorny political problem for Mr. Zelensky. The military commander now ranks as more popular than the president in some opinion polls, and dismissing him would be viewed by some as a move intended to diminish the general as a potential political opponent.
General Zaluzhny’s job has been in doubt since it became clear in the autumn that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the country’s south had failed.
Ukraine’s former president and a leading opposition figure, Petro O. Poroshenko, was one of many prominent politicians who quickly weighed in on the rumors.
Defending General Zaluzhny, he said the military commander had become the personification of the unity needed throughout the country over the course of two years of brutal fighting to save the nation from Russian subjugation.
A decision to remove him would not be motivated “by military and strategic considerations,” he said while on a trip to Brussels, adding: “It is based on emotions and jealousy.”
The muddle at the top is already rippling through Ukraine’s military, members of Ukraine’s Parliament have said, affecting morale in the rank and file and the work of senior officers with counterparts from allied militaries. Uncertainty hangs over whether orders issued by General Zaluzhny are backed by the president, denting trust in the chain of command.
Along the front line, where Ukrainians are fighting intense, bloody engagements daily, some soldiers lamented the disruption. “Zaluzhny enjoys very high authority in the army,” said Lt. Pavlo Velychko, who is serving in Ukraine’s 101st Territorial Defense Brigade. Firing the general, he said, would be “a signal to commanders of all ranks: No matter how well you do your job, you can be removed without reason.”
The tumult in the leadership ranks comes at a particularly precarious moment for Ukraine in the war. Russia has intensified attacks on the battlefield at the same time as it has stepped up its propaganda campaign aimed at undermining support for Ukraine in the West. Ukraine, in the meantime, is forced to wait to see how political interests in the United States and Europe affect its prospects for getting aid it desperately needs.
Conflict between Ukraine’s military and civilian leadership has been part of the background discussion in Kyiv for months, as has speculation about a change in military leadership.
Neither man nor their staffs have done much to dispel reports of tension. While Mr. Zelensky and General Zaluzhny have appeared together at photo opportunities and staged events, the two most powerful leaders in the country have never jointly addressed the nation in a significant fashion.
The icy relations and a lack of any explanation of the general’s standing have become problems in themselves, said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Parliament from the opposition European Solidarity party. It was uncharacteristic for Mr. Zelensky, a former actor often praised for his communications skills, he said, adding: “The absence of communication is equal to confirmation of a problem.”
Friction between the president and his top general has simmered, mostly behind the scenes, since soon after the Russian invasion and as General Zaluzhny’s popularity soared with military victories. Among Ukrainian political analysts, the general is seen as a plausible challenger to Mr. Zelensky if elections now suspended by martial law were to resume.
The schism deepened last fall, when General Zaluzhny published an essay declaring the fighting a deadlock, contradicting Mr. Zelensky’s hopeful assertions of progress. That breach followed a Ukrainian counteroffensive staged with billions of dollars in Western weapons that failed to achieve a breakthrough while costing thousands of Ukrainian casualties.
More recently, the two publicly disagreed over whether the civilian or military leadership should be responsible for a plan to draft as many as half a million men to replenish the army. The draft is likely to be unpopular and taint whichever leaders are most closely associated with it, Ukrainian commentators have noted.
The rumors this week were of a slightly different nature — with the reaction swifter and more widespread than in the past.
While the Kremlin would surely look to seize on any upheaval in the Ukrainian command to further undermine support for Ukraine, Moscow has itself turned to a rotating cast of military figures to lead its war effort.
President Vladimir V. Putin named Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov one year ago, dismissing Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was in the job for only three months. General Surovikin had replaced Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov.
General Gerasimov has not been seen in public this year, fueling rumors that he was injured or killed in a Ukrainian strike while he visited the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian military intelligence has said it does not know whether Russia’s wartime leader is alive.
“This is information that requires careful additional verification,” Andriy Yusov, the spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence ministry. “This would be very good news for all of us, but we are currently verifying it.”
Friction between civilian and military leadership has been a staple of many wars. President Abraham Lincoln fired the his commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George B. McClellan, in the civil war, and during the Korean War, President Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But the way in which military changes are handled is often critical to how they are perceived.
If any move to replace the general is viewed as purely political rather than a militarily necessity, Mr. Zelensky could face a backlash not just among opposition politicians but the public, who polls show hold General Zaluzhny in the highest of regard.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.