Valeriy Zaluzhny is responsible for transforming Ukraine's Armed Forces, which were reminiscent of a Soviet fighting force, into a modern military.
Valeriy Zaluzhny is responsible for transforming Ukraine’s Armed Forces, which were reminiscent of a Soviet fighting force, into a modern military. He upended the cumbersome top down decision making structure – still used by the Russians – and replaced it with the NATO style command system which allows officers on the ground to make quick decisions. While Ukrainian President Zelensky has been the face of Ukraine’s resistance, for good reason, Valeriy Zaluzhny will likely go down in history as one of the main players in the conflict – a man who was able to utilise Ukraine’s smaller and underequipped army to push back Putin’s war machine.
Mr Zaluzhny was made commander-in-chief in July 2021 when he received the call from Volodymyr Zelensky. The position is the country’s top military title outranked only by the President.
Now, in an exclusive interview with Time, he describes being surprised by the decision as were others in the military. At 49 he is on the younger side for such a position but he brought an open mind and moved away from Soviet practices. He has previously called Ukraine’s adoption of NATO military practices “irreversible”.
Mr Zaluzhny represents the new generation of Ukrainian military leaders who fought against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country since 2014 and have trained with NATO counterparts. He knew that Ukraine’s Armed Forces would need an edge if Moscow ever ordered a full scale invasion.
When that invasion eventually did take place, a US official asked if he would leave following Putin’s February 2022 invasion. He responded “‘I don’t understand you’. For me the war started in 2014…I didn’t run away then, and I’m not going to run now,” according to Time magazine.
Following his appointment to commander-in-chief in 2021, he began preparing to give Ukraine the edge it needed. US intelligence warned of Putin’s preparation for a full scale invasion, however, few listened – Valeriy Zaluzhny did.
The element of surprise has worked again, more recently, for Kyiv. For months top Ukrainian officials began to speak about their intention to launch a counterattack in the south of the country near Kherson.
However, the main attack came in the northeast in Kharkiv Oblast, surprising the Russians – who had moved their best forces south – and causing a huge rout which stunned ally and enemy alike.
The loss has prompted Vladimir Putin to mobilise 300,000 additional Russians to fight in the conflict and the war in Ukraine is far from over.
Mr Zaluzhny knows this, he said: “Knowing what I know first-hand about the Russians, our victory will not be final. Our victory will be an opportunity to take a breath and prepare for the next war.”