According to classic Soviet doctrines, the Ukrainian army and defense were built to repel an attack from the west. More precisely from the West. Not much changed after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What did change, however, was the state of the Ukrainian economy.
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“Ukraine’s gross domestic product fell by half at that time, and with it the entire Ukrainian army went completely to the bottom. All that was left of her was a wreck. It was quite common for Ukrainian soldiers to sell parts, to steal whatever they could,” recalls Josef Pazderka. The numbers of soldiers were also decreasing. The Ukrainian army was gradually entering the stage of clinical death.
Then came the attack. From the East or the South. In the spring of 2014, Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula under the pretext of suppressing an alleged militia uprising and subsequently announced a referendum on self-determination. During the year, the fighting also spilled over into the Donbas, i.e. the eastern region of Ukraine.
The Russian army knew no mercy – and especially after the massacre in the battle for Ilovaisk in September 2014, Ukrainians realized that they had fully entered the war. And that they can no longer cope with volunteer corps and transporters whose batteries have been stolen.
In the places of the bloodiest battles in the east of the country, a certain brigade commander demonstrates his abilities at that time. His name is Valery Zaluzhny, he is 41 years old, he has studied at several universities (most of them with honors), and as time will show, his education does not end there. He speaks English, is not afraid to go abroad for experience and has an understanding of the life of soldiers and lower officers.
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His star begins to rise after the war in Donbass, and in 2021, i.e. seven years after the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appoints him Chief of the General Staff.
To this day, Zaluzhnyi refers to 2014 in interviews as the point when he realized that passivity and waiting will not deter the Russians from their intentions and that it is necessary to start preparing for a major conflict.
So he started the training of soldiers and broke the existing customs in the army. The results came relatively soon. According to Ondřej Soukup, Zalužný can undoubtedly be considered the face of the new Ukrainian army rebuilt on completely different principles than the Soviet ones.
“Zaluzhnyi learned very quickly from what was happening. They had to build that army practically from scratch: eradicate corruption and, above all, leave the initiative to the local commanders. Because unlike, for example, the Soviet and today’s Russian army, which is built on a strict vertical, where you have to have everything agreed upon, the Ukrainian army had to a certain extent out of compulsion to use the fact that simply people in the given places know what it really looks like, and they themselves can best decide what they will do,” Soukup explains the main principle of the change.
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Circling around politics
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine presented Valerij Zaluzhny with new challenges. To this day, there is speculation about what exactly the Ukrainian political and military command of Ukraine knew about the planned invasion of Russian troops. The Ukrainian counter-offensive launched in the summer of 2023 also has a conflicting assessment.
Recently, however, his circling around politics has attracted the most attention. The army is currently the most trusted institution in Ukraine, and if Zaluzhny is its main face, he willy-nilly becomes part of the political struggle.
His popularity among Ukrainians, for example, rivals that of President Zelensky. And so speculations that Volodymyr Zelenskyi will recall him are starting to appear regularly.
How would Zaluzhny react? And how to evaluate him from a military point of view? The podcast Na Východ!
Josef Pazderka, Ondřej Soukup, Daniela Vrbová
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