To defeat Russia, Ukraine’s top commander pushes to fight on his terms..Washington Post


To defeat Russia, Ukraine’s top commander pushes to fight on his terms

Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander, in his office in Kyiv. (Oksana Parafeniuk/For The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — A career military man, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny long ago confronted three questions: Am I ready to die? Am I ready to kill? Am I willing to send people to die and kill?

Now, Ukraine’s top commander in a war with a Russian force larger and better-equipped than his own is asking himself a new question: How can I reduce the loss of life? He starts each morning by learning how many soldiers were killed or wounded following his orders the day before. Sometimes he stumbles across a contact in his cellphone who is dead. He refuses to delete them.

Zaluzhny said he’s saving the grieving for later. Mourning now would distract him from his important work as the man Ukrainians trust to keep them safe and Western partners trust with billions in security assistance. Both expect him to re-create Ukraine’s earlier underdog success on the battlefield.

But if it were up to Zaluzhny alone, this is not how he would get the job done. He would fight with air superiority. He would fire back at least as many shells as the Russians are firing at his troops. And he would have cruise missiles that could match Moscow’s. Instead, modern fighter jets, such as the U.S.-made F-16, are not expected on the battlefield until next year. Ukraine’s ammunition supply is constrained, with the Russians often shooting three times as much in a day.

And Western allies, citing fears of escalating the war with Russia, have placed a condition on the longer-range missiles and other materiel they’ve so far provided: They can’t be used to strike Russian soil.

So, Zaluzhny said, he uses weapons made in Ukraine for the frequent strikes across the border that Kyiv never officially acknowledges as its own.

“To save my people, why do I have to ask someone for permission what to do on enemy territory?” Zaluzhny recently told The Washington Post in a rare interview. “For some reason, I have to think that I’m not allowed to do anything there. Why? Because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will … use nuclear weapons? The kids who are dying don’t care.

“This is our problem, and it is up to us to decide how to kill this enemy. It is possible and necessary to kill on his territory in a war. If our partners are afraid to use their weapons, we will kill with our own. But only as much as is necessary.”

Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, wants shells, planes and patience

The challenges facing Zaluzhny and his forces are significant. Even after he orchestrated a series of military feats — a defensive stand that forced the Russians to retreat from around Kyiv and counteroffensives that expelled the invading troops from the northeast Kharkiv region and the southern regional capital of Kherson last year — large swaths of Ukraine’s east and south, about a fifth of the country, remain occupied.

Carrying out a counteroffensive to reclaim that territory, defeat Russia and minimize Ukraine’s casualties requires resources that Zaluzhny said he’s still lacking. Western officials have said Ukraine has enough to succeed, but Zaluzhny was sharply critical of counterparts who have argued that Kyiv doesn’t need F-16s. Their own militaries would never fight like this, he said in the interview.

Despite criticism that progress in the counteroffensive has been slow, Zaluzhny remains a popular if somewhat paradoxical figure in Ukraine. He has sought to be a driver of change in the military, eliminating legacies from the Soviet era and transforming it into a more Western, NATO-like force. Off the battlefield, the 50-year-old’s smiling face is painted on walls across the country, along with his hand in a peace sign. He has a Baby Yoda patch on his bulletproof vest and a patch with cartoon cats holding guns on the back of his helmet.

But behind the scenes, the worries and responsibility weigh on him.

“One question I get asked is, ‘How can you stand it?’” Zaluzhny said.

“I have to live with it,” he said. “Every day, it’s those who were killed. Every day, it’s the maimed, the missing. It’s tears.”

Zaluzhny speaks with The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kostiantyn Khudov in his office in Kyiv on June 28. (Oksana Parafeniuk/For The Washington Post)
‘No longer a Soviet army’

Seven months before columns of Russian tanks streaked across Ukraine’s northern, southern and eastern borders, Zaluzhny was considering a transition to civilian life.

But the military was all he’d ever known; he was born while his father was stationed at a garrison in the country’s north, and he later attended a military academy. When President Volodymyr Zelensky called and offered Zaluzhny the top post in Ukraine’s armed forces, Zaluzhny quickly ditched the idea of retirement.

Among the first things he did was renovate his new office. Zaluzhny had always dreaded visiting previous commanders there. Each time reminded him of the thing he despised most about the Soviet army legacy — “that any commander who took his position was in fact a feudal lord over his subordinates,” he said. It represented exactly what he wanted to change about Ukraine’s military.

“These walls were soaked in this,” Zaluzhny said. “When you came in here, you immediately understood that it was a mistake to be born, it was a mistake to come here.”

In a General Staff headquarters building built in the 19th century, Zaluzhny’s office now stands apart — simple and modern with a large bookshelf where Zaluzhny stashes his collection, including Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “The Governance of China.”

The change wasn’t for aesthetics, but rather for the place, and the person in it, to feel more accessible. Rather than rule with an iron fist, Zaluzhny said, he frequently asks for input — and not just from his own circle of generals. Even now, soldiers on the front line can often directly reach out to Zaluzhny through social media.

Zaluzhny’s attempt at culture change can be seen on the battlefield, too. Years of training and deepening ties with NATO forces have made Ukraine’s forces more nimble than Russia’s in this war. Lower-level commanders on the ground often feel empowered to make decisions quickly rather than run each call up the chain of command — a Soviet mind-set.

“The assumption that this would be a war between a big Soviet army and a small Soviet army was wrong in many countries,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said. “That’s why they told us that Kyiv would fall in three days and Ukraine in three weeks. But this is no longer a Soviet army.”

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After Reznikov learned that Russia had launched a full-scale attack on Feb. 24, 2022, he arrived at Zaluzhny’s office to find the general standing over large maps and answering multiple phones. Zaluzhny was receiving information from the battlefield and then responding with curt orders, Reznikov said. But Zaluzhny would also add a small term of endearment each time, calling his subordinate a “beauty” or telling him “good job.”

“This is humanity,” Reznikov said. “The guy is in a general’s uniform, but his humanity is what makes him special.”

The military still demands strict order and discipline, Zaluzhny said. He can be stern and demanding, but “I do not mock people, I do not oppress them, I do not humiliate them.”

The turn away from the Ukrainian military’s Soviet legacy is far from complete. More offices must be changed, Zaluzhny said. And more change will come with the new generation — soldiers Zaluzhny proudly described as knowing English and being well-read. “It’s a pity we’re losing them,” he said.

After fighting an internal Soviet ideological enemy, he now faces an external one that lauds the very heritage Zaluzhny wanted eradicated. But he still has respect for his adversary’s doctrine. He eagerly read everything Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s military chief, has ever written, describing it as “very, very interesting” and lamenting that he hasn’t published anything lately.

“He is an enemy — an enemy who is very smart,” Zaluzhny said. “Smart and therefore devious. He is still strong. So you have to respect him as such and look for ways to kill him. Because that is the only way to win.”

A mural of Zaluzhny at Kherson’s international airport in November, the month Ukraine drove out Russian forces and retook the city. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Beyond victory

Years before Zaluzhny could start shaping Ukraine’s military into his vision, a few hours in a jail cell motivated him to learn more about the world order.

It was 2019, and Zaluzhny, as one of Ukraine’s top commanders directing Kyiv’s forces against Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine, traveled to Brussels for a meeting with NATO counterparts.

As soon as he stepped off the plane, he said, he was surrounded by law enforcement. With their guns pointed at him, he was instructed to lie facedown on the floor and was handcuffed. Zaluzhny said he had just enough roaming minutes on his phone to call Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, who eventually helped secure his release.

Russian authorities had placed Zaluzhny’s name on the Interpol wanted list without his knowing — a regular practice that has led to other Ukrainian commanders being briefly imprisoned. He was angry at himself for not knowing his legal rights in such a situation.

“I was in a bad mood, but then I realized that hypothetically I was a war criminal and most likely would remain one,” Zaluzhny said. “So I decided I should study international relations and international law.”

The episode inspired him to pursue a master’s degree, which he received in December 2020. He puts it to use in his current job, which calls on him not only to be a military strategist but also to regularly confront geopolitical considerations, such as allies’ fear of crossing Russian red lines by providing weapons such as longer-range missiles or modern fighter jets.

Zaluzhny, however, isn’t shy about his intent to reclaim Crimea, the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014, even as some Western officials privately worry about what Putin’s response would be if Ukrainian troops ever reached the territory. “As soon as I have the means, I’ll do something. I don’t give a damn — nobody will stop me,” Zaluzhny said.

The figurative Western handcuffs on his military operations have prompted Zaluzhny to think more about Ukraine’s future — beyond this counteroffensive and this war — and how to make the country so strong that no one will dare attack it again. To accomplish that means producing weapons for defense rather than being reliant on others to provide them.

He lamented that Ukraine is dependent on other countries for ammunition as partners struggle to meet the demand. The more Ukraine can fire, pinning down Russian forces, the fewer casualties it will suffer, Zaluzhny said. But what happens if the precious resource becomes scarcer the longer the war lasts?

“I’ve been asking myself that since last March — and not just myself; I ask it everywhere I can ask it,” Zaluzhny said.

His vision for a formidable Ukraine is why he struggles to consider his own future after the war. Maybe he’ll take some time off. “But as my wife says: ‘Okay, three days. What’s next?’” he said with a laugh. He might write a book, he said. He’d like to travel, though his Brussels airport experience left him wary.

But Zaluzhny expects that even after the war, he’ll be busy. His concept of victory is more than just Ukraine restoring its full territorial integrity.

“Victory will be when we will have an army — maybe even a not-insignificant one — that will guarantee the safety of children who are now riding in baby carriages, so that they grow up knowing that this won’t happen again,” Zaluzhny said. “And that’s a tremendous amount of work. It has to start now.”

Kostiantyn Khudov, Serhiy Morgunov and Kamila Hrabchuk contributed to this report.

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops have intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The front line: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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