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Euroviews. Is Zelenskyy's four-star general about to become his main political opponent?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacts during his end-of-the-year news conference in Kyiv, December 2023
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacts during his end-of-the-year news conference in Kyiv, December 2023 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Aleksandar Đokić
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The Zelenskyy-Zaluzhnyi beef is a reminder that the essence of politics lies in disagreement or divergence of group interests — especially when those interests involve the survival of the nation and its people, Aleksandar Đokić writes.

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As the war in Ukraine nears the two-year mark, global attention has radically shifted away from Russia's ongoing act of aggression. Battlefield reports have become scarce, and the continued humanitarian crisis affecting tens of millions of Ukrainians barely makes the news any more.

Yet, the most recent bombshell out of Kyiv alleging a behind-the-scenes dispute between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and army commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi brought Ukraine to the headlines of the media around the world once more. 

Rumours of Zaluzhnyi's imminent dismissal as a consequence of an ever-widening rift between two key figures in wartime Ukraine of today are said to be tied to the fact that Zaluzhnyi — seen by many as a level-headed realist — has become increasingly more popular among Ukrainians than Zelenskyy himself.

While the Ukrainian president dismissed this as "not true", fears over Zaluzhnyi's rise in popularity in domestic politics would serve to prove that, while a nation's unity in times of war might be strong, concord in politics tends to be very short-lived.

And if anything, the Zelenskyy-Zaluzhnyi beef is a reminder that the essence of politics lies in disagreement or divergence of group interests — especially when those interests involve the survival of the nation and its people.

What unites a country?

In fact, history has shown that the unity of the people and various political options is an unnatural state in the realm of politics. 

This coming together of an entire society is usually either a product of tyranny from within — where unity represents merely a false image of itself, as in the case of Vladimir Putin's Russia — or forced from the outside by aggressive foreign powers threatening the sole existence of a nation. 

A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, March 2022
A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, March 2022AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

Going a mere decade back, Ukrainian society was, like any other, divided between conflicting interests of various groups, represented by political parties, with a meddling oligarchic element to boot. 

However, Ukrainians already had a unifying incentive, that many societies luckily don’t have — an increasingly aggressive and revanchist great power at its doorstep, attempting to capture Ukraine’s territory and reconfigure its national identity. 

The Ukrainian political class didn’t only face the cumbersome task of building democratic institutions and curbing oligarchic influence over the political sphere. It also had to do so while dealing with the military aggression of its now resurgent former imperial master. 

Enter Zelenskyy

Fast forward to the last presidential electoral cycle in Ukraine in 2019: the current president of the country, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, achieved a unifying effect never seen before in contemporary Ukrainian politics. 

In the runoff, he got both the west and the east of the country to support him, while replacing a string of oligarchs who preceded him, including Petro Poroshenko and Viktor Yanukovich.

Russia’s total war against Ukraine in 2022 changed the political landscape of both countries. 

Moscow slid into totalitarianism, while in Ukraine, the vast majority of the nation rallied around President Zelenskyy, a political figure only a few considered to be as resilient as he turned out to be. 

Zelenskyy, a man of charisma and a politician who understood how to appropriately communicate with a wide audience, helped the Ukrainian people beat back the main onslaught of Russian troops.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to the national anthem during his visit to Kherson, November 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to the national anthem during his visit to Kherson, November 2022AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Zelenskyy, a man of charisma and a politician who understood how to appropriately communicate with a wide audience, helped the Ukrainian people beat back the main onslaught of Russian troops. 

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Western aid, in terms of armaments and finances, came later. It was Zelenskyy’s voice, his presence, that instilled hope in the hearts of Ukrainians around the world. 

Even those who mocked him and thought he was incapable of holding the highest political office, came to respect his actions when they were needed the most, and Zelenskyy went on to become a globally recognised leader of a nation embroiled in a David vs Goliath-esque contest.

The nature of politics inevitably rears its head

However, after nearly two years of bloody war, the frontlines barely moving, and new wars and crises arising elsewhere, Ukraine lost its leading place in the world news reports. Zelenskyy’s aplomb just wasn’t enough any more. 

Internally, the nature of politics began to show itself. By mid-2023, it was already clear that Zelenskyy would be facing renewed opposition. 

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Matvii, 4, holds a poster reading "I didn't see my father for a third part of my life", while attending a rally on Independence square in Kyiv, January 2024
Matvii, 4, holds a poster reading "I didn't see my father for a third part of my life", while attending a rally on Independence square in Kyiv, January 2024AP Photo/Alex Babenko

His controversial former advisor Oleksiy Arestovych immediately presented himself as a promising potential leader of the “stalemate” or “sober” party — claiming to be the actual realist in the room. 

He alone, nonetheless, didn’t stand much chance against Zelenskyy, having switched too many political camps in his career, and it became evident that not many of those who were a part of the pre-war opposition would back him. 

With Zelenskyy at the helm of the determined resistance strain of Ukrainian politics, then who could be the face of the stalemate party, without him or her being labelled a defeatist or, even worse, Putin’s agent? 

The answer to that question was clear to the opposition veterans from the start — four-star general Valerii Zaluzhnyi definitely fits the bill. 

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Will the four-star general stand and be counted?

The general, already a war hero, is surely a strong-willed and determined individual, marked by the makings of a Macarthurian type of character. And more importantly, he has the overwhelming trust of the Ukrainian people on his side.

A December 2023 poll by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology showed that 88% of Ukrainians supported Zaluzhnyi, while Zelenskyy’s approval rating hovered at around 62%.

Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi attends an event for marking Statehood Day in Mykhailivska Square in Kyiv, July 2023
Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi attends an event for marking Statehood Day in Mykhailivska Square in Kyiv, July 2023AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

The same poll demonstrated that while the absolute majority of Ukrainians also do not favour the option of peace in lieu of giving up a part of their country’s territory — 74% are against it — a growing number of people now see the stalemate as a possibility, with 19% ready to accept it (up from 14% in October and 10% in May).

Zaluzhnyi's words in a now-infamous interview in November 2023, where he expressed his reservation that Ukraine might be stuck in a long and costly war, have stung the ever-persistent Zelenskyy just as much as they have made the possible pact with the devil seem slightly more acceptable than the continued devastation of Ukraine.

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At the same time, his outspoken and direct takes also piqued the interest of the nearly-inert Ukrainian opposition, already significantly weakened after the 2019 elections and following February 2022, when it lost almost all of its appeal. 

Yet, the passage of time and lack of progress on the battlefield has made them once again engage in a political match against Zelenskyy, as can be gleaned from those from the Verkhovna Rada issuing accusatory statements aimed at him while supporting Zaluzhnyi to the Western press these days. 

All they need now is a respectable leader to stand and be counted.

Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.

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