Espreso. Global

Iron General Zaluzhnyi: Ukraine's Commander-in-Chief and his role

8 February, 2024 Thursday

After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, was talked about all over the world and called the Iron General


After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, was talked about all over the world and called the Iron General.

On February 8, a change in the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was announced. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed Valeriy Zaluzhnyi and appointed Oleksandr Syrskyi as the new chief of the Armed Forces. Espreso looks back at what Valeriy Zaluzhnyi remembered as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for Ukrainians and the world

Commander-in-Chief without Soviet education and with real war experience

He is called a new type of military leader who has never studied at any Russian or Soviet military school. Zaluzhnyi's education is entirely in Ukrainian military universities: he first studied at the Odesa Institute of Land Forces, then at the National Defence Academy, and then entered the Ivan Chernyakhovsky National Defence University of Ukraine. As the best graduate of the operational and strategic level of training, he was awarded the Queen's Transitional Sword of the United Kingdom. In 2020, he completed his master's degree at the Ostroh Academy. It should be added that the general received all his diplomas with honours.

In addition, by the time he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he had gone through all the stages of his military career. Zaluzhnyi is also the only commander-in-chief who has taken an active part in military operations: since July 2014, he has been involved in the defence of Donbas, started his career as a deputy commander and reached the position of Chief of Staff of the Joint Forces.

Given his experience and education, it is clear that the Commander-in-Chief is not a supporter of Soviet military traditions. Instead, he is a consistent supporter of NATO.

Zaluzhnyi has been a consistent advocate of the idea that reforms in the army should come from the top: "The general course of reforming the Armed Forces of Ukraine in accordance with NATO principles and standards remains irreversible. And the key here are the principles. Changes must take place first and foremost in the outlook and attitude towards people. I would like you to turn around and face the people, your subordinates. My attitude towards people has not changed throughout my career," he once said.

Thanks to his positions, attitude and views, he gained respect among the military. In particular, journalist, politician, public figure, and above all, today's military officer Tetiana Chornovol confidently calls him "my commander".

"General Zaluzhnyi, because of his actions, charisma, and talent, has gained the status of 'my commander' for many, many military men. He is our commander, a factor of military character and self-confidence. I know that he appreciates the combat result. This makes me want to do my best. Ukraine is fortunate to have a military commander who raises the morale of the army. He is in his place," she says.

Symbol of Ukraine's resilience

Zaluzhnyi is popular not only in the army and among the population of Ukraine, but also abroad, where he is perceived as a symbol of the resilience of the Ukrainian people in the most difficult times of war.

He was first named the Iron General by the American publication Politico in April 2022 after the brilliant defeat of the Russian forces in the Kyiv region.

"The general is the personification of a new generation of Ukrainian officers, which was formed during the 8-year war in Donbas and during exercises with NATO. The Ukrainian Armed Forces managed to change the authoritarian nature that was shaped by Soviet military training," the media emphasised at the time.

And in September 2022, the influential Time magazine featured a portrait of Ukraine's top military officer on its cover and authoritatively stressed that the Ukrainian army would hardly have achieved such success without its commander. Zaluzhnyi became the first Ukrainian military officer to be featured on the cover of the prestigious publication.

The British Financial Times noted that it was General Zaluzhnyi's extraordinary decisions on the conduct of hostilities that helped Ukraine turn the tide of the war in its favour.

Meanwhile, retired British Colonel Glen Grant believes that it was Zaluzhnyi who was able to unite the military and became a great motivator for the entire Ukrainian nation.

Love for children and patches with baby Yoda

In his early interviews, the general said that he loves to communicate with children. That's why every photo of him with a Ukrainian child goes viral. Zaluzhnyi also said, despite the fact that unfortunately, our children will know the enemy not from fairy tales, but as an absolute evil that must be fought, "We will kill them all!"

And in June 2023, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine posted a video of his work on military maps online. Vigilant Ukrainians saw an unusual patch on his uniform - a baby Yoda. This patch inspired many to create and debate, but the analogy with Star Wars and the Jedi was noticed by everyone. 

Meanwhile, the general's personal life often goes unreported, as the family lives modestly. Zaluzhnyi has been happily married for over 20 years to Olena, a financier at Ukrgasbank before the war. 

The general considers his wife to be his closest person and true soul mate. The couple has two daughters. 

He led Ukraine's successful military campaigns: the defence of Kyiv, the counter-offensive in Kharkiv region, the liberation of Kherson

At a time when everyone was watching in amazement as Ukraine fought against a much stronger enemy, including the defence of its capital, Zaluzhnyi said: "Kyiv will stand!" And he refused to blow up the bridges across the Dnipro in Kyiv, which also played an important role in public confidence and ultimately in the defence itself.

"I appeal to the commanders - take care of your personnel! Plan your operations carefully and respond immediately to changes in the situation! Human life is our highest priority. This is how we are fundamentally different from the enemy, who does not even take the bodies of their dead and is ready to cover our land with them to pave the way for an offensive," the general said in his address in March 2022.

The victory in the Battle of Kyiv, as well as the defence of northern Ukraine and Kharkiv, are considered to be the events that became the starting point for all subsequent successes, including the fact that, thanks to the coordinated actions of the Armed Forces, Russian forces were driven out of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions by the end of April 2022.

"His hard work in the run-up to the invasion and his savvy battlefield tactics in the early stages of the war helped the country repel the Russian onslaught," the Times stated in its article about Zaluzhnyi.

Subsequently, the counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, when the Ukrainian military managed to drive the Russian forces out of the region, only fuelled public faith and the respect of foreign partners. Then the Ukrainian Armed Forces seized the moment and launched a lightning-fast counter-offensive that forced the Russian forces to flee in a hurry, leaving behind military equipment and even personal belongings.

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