Valeri Zaluzhny, the man on whom the future of Ukraine depends | International

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Russia's number one enemy is not Volodymyr Zelensky. If there is someone whom Moscow would like to liquidate in Ukraine today, it is Valeri Zaluzhny. Russia's state news agency Tass reported last week that the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces had suffered a serious head injury after shelling a barracks on the Kherson front. Russian social networks erupted in jubilation. Zaluzhni can be seen publicly with a dropper. Russian propaganda justified his absence as a sign that Ukraine's greatest hero had been knocked out. But Zaluzhny rose a few days later, also from the networks, to make it clear that he was still in one piece and ready to lead the imminent counteroffensive that should mark the future of the war.

In Ukraine there is only one person who can be compared in popularity with the president, and that is Zaluzhni. Zelenski is the first politician who has earned overwhelming respect among the population of a country accustomed to political anger, to belittling its leaders as corrupt, puppets of the economic power of the oligarchs, but also of Russia. The president won easily in 2019 and his party later obtained an absolute majority in parliament. Zelensky would win the presidential elections even more strongly today, according to the polls, because he not only did not flee when it seemed that Kiev could fall into Russian hands, but he has taken charge of a united society for the first time under clear Ukrainian sentiment.

But it is one thing to be respected and another to be admired. And Zaluzhny is admired. "He is my idol, we thank God for having given us this man, it is in him that we trust our victory." This is how Vladíslav Fadeev, mayor of Vatutine, a town of 1,200 inhabitants in the Kharkov province, in the east of the country, speaks. The plenary session of the City Council approved last February to change the name of the municipality to Zaluzhne. The news spread like wildfire, that of a town founded in 1948 that gave up its name, in honor of Soviet General Nikolai Vatutin, a World War II hero, for that of Zaluzhni.

“Each era has its heroes, and we must adapt to the current moment in history,” says Fadeev. Not everyone is clear about it in Vatutine. “The neighbors should have voted for it, because this will be a mess, there will be so many towns in Ukraine renamed in honor of Zaluzhni,” explains Alexandra Tridub, 36, who was walking her baby through the streets of this bucolic town on Friday. “I like Zaluzhni, but there are already two Vatutine in Ukraine and often the post office gets confused. Well, with Zaluzhni, each region will have a town with its name”.

The toponymic change must be previously approved by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory and finally, by the Parliament, according to the mayor. The stratagem that the Vatutine City Council has found to overcome a possible veto —before a future excess of Zaluzhnis on the map— is that they will officially register the name as Zaluzhne, which in Ukrainian can mean “beyond the fields”. And why not call him Zelensky? Fadeev says that there will surely be many villages named after the president in the future after the war. But not in Vatutine.

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generals and politics

What other Ukrainian general could name Vatutine? Natalia Hakonenko admits that she has no answer to this question as she buys seeds for her garden at the only open grocery store in town. "I don't know other generals because I prefer not to comment on politics," Hakonenko excuses himself. His words coincide with the reflection that the chief of staff of a member of the Ukrainian General Staff made to this newspaper in May: “A general in Ukraine not only has a military weight, but also a political one, and he not only has military enemies, he also has enemies politicians". In a highly militarized country it is common for high-ranking officials to jump into politics.

Zaluzhni was appointed by Zelenski in 2021 to the position of commander-in-chief with the mission of modernizing the country's Armed Forces, moving them away from the hierarchical and rigid Soviet model. EL PAÍS has consulted a high-ranking soldier close to Zaluzhni and a deputy from the Rada [la cámara legislativa] in close contact with various members of the General Staff, the body that brings together the main commanders of the Armed Forces. Both people, who prefer to speak anonymously, agree that the president and the commander in chief are rowing in the same boat, but that does not mean that there are differences between them. And the differences, they indicate, are not so much with Zelenski as with the president's team. Specifically, with his right hand, Andrii Yermak. For example, according to these sources, heads of state and government have proposed meeting with Zaluzhni, but the office of the Ukrainian president, his only superior, would have ruled it out.

Zaluzhny has only given three interviews in the 15 months of war, two to international magazines —Time and The Economist— and an audiovisual one with the Ukrainian journalist Dmitro Komarov. The latter, made public last May, shows a telegenic person, a good speaker and who knows how to strike a chord with the public with a humble and at the same time powerful expression. If there is someone who could overshadow Zelenski, it is Zaluzhni. There is nothing to indicate that the general wants it, although it is not a far-fetched idea: on a visit this Saturday by this newspaper to a military position that monitors the border between the province of Kharkov and Russia, the soldiers stationed there, asked about Zaluzhni, even contemplated the idea that in a future presidential election, his commander in chief would present himself. “When I saw the interview with Komarov, I discovered someone who is humanly exceptional, beyond the military,” recalls Ruslan, a border patrol soldier, “I don't know if he would be a good politician, but he has the talent to connect with people.”

On very few occasions, Zaluzhni has wanted to give his opinion on political decisions, but when he has done so, he has marked the ground. Last December he gave support in a statement to a bill that would toughen the penalties against deserters. Zelensky had no choice but to sign it. The commander in chief has only once been the subject of political controversy. La Rada published last January a photo of Zaluzhni with a painting of Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Ukrainian extreme right during the 1930s and 1940s, a myth of the most radical nationalism. Protests by the Polish government, a priority ally of Ukraine, forced Parliament to withdraw the message and the photograph.

Zelensky and Zaluzhny started from different positions when the invasion began. While the president ruled out a Russian attack until the last moment, the commander-in-chief took it for granted. “We had been at war for eight years, we knew this would happen, we have been preparing for this for eight years,” Zaluzhni said in the interview with Komarov. In 2014 the war in Donbas began and the unilateral annexation of Crimea by Russia. In the first interview he gave, with TimeZaluzhni detailed how in the weeks leading up to the invasion he was preparing the defense of kyiv in complete secrecy.

Zelensky came to power promising a dialogue with Russia to end the war in Donbas. In March 2022, when the invasion had only been underway for a few weeks and kyiv was under siege, the president was still offering Putin dialogue. The sources consulted by EL PAÍS affirm that Zaluzhni made a great effort in those early stages of the war to convince the presidential office that they could resist and turn the situation around.

In interviews with soldiers at the front, statements of unwavering confidence in Zaluzhny are common, something that does not happen with Zelensky. In the Numantine defense of the city of Bakhmut, in the east, a battle that lasted more than eight months, criticism of Zelensky by the Ukrainian military has been recurrent, because they have considered him the main person responsible for a fight that has caused thousands casualties without apparent results. But the reality is that Zaluzhny has made it clear that the resistance in Bakhmut is his decision.

“I would like Zelensky to keep Zaluzhni in office,” Olga Muja, a neighbor of Ostriv, a village in Zaporizhia province, said in May. EL PAÍS interviewed Muja on a trip around the entire war front. Ostriv is located on the western bank of the Dnieper River, opposite the Russian-occupied Energodar nuclear power plant. Muja is 66 years old and retired. She says that she doesn't know anything about military matters but she has blind faith in the commander in chief. About Zelenski, her first reaction was silence while he cocked his head. Finally, she was right to say that, unlike others, he did not flee when the war began and has remained at the head of the country, above all by gaining international support. "I think we are lucky to have both leading the country, each with responsibility for it," said Hakonenko from Vatutine, the future Zaluzhne. "One rules the population and the other defends the country, and the results show that they make a good team," adds Fadeev.

Zelensky speaks to the public every day and Zaluzhny does it little by little, but when he does, the injection of morale for public opinion is extraordinary. This was the case when on May 27 he published a patriotic video on his social networks announcing that everything was ready to launch the expected counteroffensive, and this was also the case in the interview with Komarov. "It will take time but we will liberate the Crimean peninsula, Donetsk and Lugansk, I have no doubt, I know what we need," the commander-in-chief reiterated. The journalist replied that for millions of Ukrainians, those words were his greatest message of hope.

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