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Saluschnyj: General mit Kultstatus – und Selenskyjs Rivale?

Saluschnyj: Commander with Cult Status – and Selenskyj’s Rival?

President Wolodymyr Selenskyj is said to have advised Walerij Saluschnyj, the most popular commander of the Ukrainian army and chief of the armed forces, to resign. However, he refused. There is no information or formal decree about the reasons. Nevertheless, the reports based on anonymous sources in the Ukrainian media shook Ukraine on Monday.

Selenskyj’s office later reported that Saluschnyj had not been dismissed. While there was a wave of solidarity with Saluschnyj on social media, the people did not take to the streets.

On the one hand, the news of the potential resignation of Ukraine’s most important commander, who is fighting Russia’s invasion, was a sensation in two ways: both in terms of content and the opaque and contradictory communication policy of the government. On the other hand, the news did not surprise many.

Cracks in the Relationship between Selenskyj and Saluschnyj – especially after Interview

Speculations about cracks in the relationship between the president and the popular commander emerged in the early months of the Russian invasion, in spring 2022. They intensified in the summer of the same year. There were talks of the president or his entourage being politically jealous – nobody knows for sure. At that time, Selenskyj dispelled doubts, among other things, by releasing a joint photo with Saluschnyj.

The rumors subsided for a long time. However, public disagreements resurfaced in November. Back then, in an interview for the British magazine Economist, Saluschnyj announced a shift to positional warfare and admitted that the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive had failed. Selenskyj partially contradicted him and stated that there was no stalemate on the front. The conflict became increasingly apparent.

Without consulting the commander, the president replaced senior officers and communicated with the generals bypassing Saluschnyj. The chief commander, in turn, criticized the president’s decision to replace all military commissioners to combat corruption during mobilization. He also distanced himself from the announcement of the mobilization of half a million men, allegedly demanded by the military. During his year-end press conference, Selenskyj said he had a “working relationship” with Saluschnyj and hinted at how little he liked the commander’s statements.

It is unclear what ultimately prompted Selenskyj to advise Saluschnyj to resign. At the end of November, the parliamentary member of the President’s party “Servant of the People,” Marjana Besuhla, openly demanded Saluschnyj’s resignation. She accused him of not having a war plan for 2024.

Events that strain the relationship between the president and the commander also include a new law on mobilization. After an initial draft sparked controversy in public, it had to be revised. Moreover, there was a recent crash of a Russian military transport plane of the Il-76 type in the Russian region of Belgorod. Russia claims that dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, intended for exchange, were on board. Additionally, the plane was allegedly shot down by the Ukrainian armed forces. President Selenskyj called for an international investigation into the disaster.

Commander with Unprecedented Level of Trust

The 50-year-old Walerij Saluschnyj comes from a military family. He was born in the city of Swjahel in the Zhytomyr region and is

In many ways atypical, the first commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Saluschnyj, did not study at Soviet military schools but graduated from Ukrainian ones, including the Institute for Ground Forces in Odessa. After 2014, he rose to become the deputy commander of the group in the Donbass, and in 2021, Selenskyj invited him to become the Chief of the Armed Forces. Saluschnyj himself said that this was surprising for him and emphasized having a good relationship with the President.

Following the Russian invasion, Saluschnyj quickly became a symbol of successful Ukrainian resistance against the Russian troops. The trust in him as the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is higher than that in Selenskyj, whose peak of popularity appears to have passed. According to recent polls from December 2023, 88 to 94 percent of Ukrainians trust Saluschnyj, with three-quarters expressing opposition to his resignation. Support for Selenskyj fluctuates between 62 and 77 percent.

Portrait on T-Shirts and the Time Magazine Cover

Images of Saluschnyj are painted on walls, songs are written about him, and his portrait is printed on T-shirts. In an interview, he mentioned how as a child, he wanted to become a comedian, drawing parallels to former professional actor Selenskyj. His inclination towards humor is evident in his communication and his choice of attire. The Star Wars character “Baby Yoda” occasionally adorns the general’s uniform. In an interview, he mentioned enjoying disco music from the 1980s and the German band “Rammstein.”

Saluschnyj is not a very public figure. He rarely gives interviews, mainly for Western media. Nevertheless, the commander-in-chief is not considered to be closed off. Before the Russian invasion, he was active on social networks, posting photos of his family – unusual behavior for a general. When his Instagram account with photos of his children was allegedly hacked by Russians, Saluschnyj reacted strongly towards the Russian military: “We will kill them all.”

Ukraine’s Western partners acknowledge his military talent. Thus, Saluschnyj’s portrait was featured on the cover of the American magazine “Time.” However, he expressed more than just words of gratitude towards Washington. When the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, General Mark Milley, suggested Ukraine consider negotiations with Russia in the fall of 2022, Saluschnyj publicly responded that the Ukrainian Armed Forces would not agree. The press wrote that he was unreachable for US military personnel at the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023.

Does Saluschnyj Want to Become President?

In a self-critical article for the Economist, Saluschnyj admitted to a mistake – a rare occurrence for Ukrainian leadership: he was surprised that Russia’s heavy losses did not stop the war.

Saluschnyj enjoys cult status in Ukraine, but he has also faced failures. The investigation into the rapid occupation of the Ukrainian south by Russia is still ongoing.

Why couldn’t the Ukrainian army contain the Russian offensive in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in February 2022, even though the advance from Crimea was expected? According to media reports, the investigators also discussed this with Saluschnyj.

Does the general want to become president? There are indications. Thus, potential political rivalry could be the main reason for the disagreements with Selenskyj. Although Saluschnyj has never publicly shown political ambitions, if that were to change, he could likely hope for the support of a considerable portion of Ukrainian society.

Adapted from Russian: Markian Ostaptschuk

Author: Roman Goncharenko

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