Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has initiated an internal conflict with one of his top military commanders who called for a withdrawal from the key Donbas city of Bakhmut weeks ago, according to government sources cited by Bild on Monday.
Kyiv insiders told the German tabloid that Zelensky has refused calls from General Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine armed forces, who advised the president to abandon Bakhmut – known as Artyomovsk in Russia – rather than keep defending it as Russian troops threatened to take control of the city.
In a sign that Ukraine’s head of state and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces had fundamentally different views on how Ukraine’s army should deal with Bakhmut, Zelensky declared Bakhmut a fortress and refused to pull troops back after Russian forces made notable advances in the fight for the city.
Even Washington’s pressure for Ukrainian troops to pull out of Bakhmut and focus on preparing a major counteroffensive for the spring using Western-supplied weapons didn’t mad any difference since Zelensky fears a morale hit that such a move would cause.
Though part of a 70km Ukrainian defense line Kyiv created since initiating the fighting in Donbas in 2014, Bakhmut has no strategic importance from a military point of view so Ukrainian troops on the ground do not understand why the city is being held considering the fact that a withdrawal from it would not be decisive.
They believe they should have withdrawn from the destroyed city a long time ago, but Zelensky recently stated that they would defend the city as long as it remains reasonable to do so.
Bakhmut became a political symbol only through Russia’s concentration on the city and the deployment of thousands of Wagner’s mercenaries there and Zelensky’s stand is only strengthening that status.
However, it becomes clear that Zelensky’s beef with Zaluzhny is no longer just about military issues since the general’s popularity earned by leading the military campaign against Russia makes him a viable challenger to Zelensky in a potential presidential run.
For months now, rumors have been circulating in Ukraine regarding Zelensky’s concerns over possible competition although Zaluzhny has not publicly announced any ambition to run for office.