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Exclusive: Ukraine must adapt to a reduction in Western military aid, embattled army chief says

Valerii Zaluzhnyi says Ukraine must adapt to a reduction in Western military aid.
Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images
Valerii Zaluzhnyi says Ukraine must adapt to a reduction in Western military aid.

By Andrew Carey, CNN

Kyiv (CNN) — Ukraine’s embattled army chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, says Ukraine must adapt to a reduction in military aid from its key allies and focus ever more strongly on technology if it is to win its war against Russia.

In an exclusive essay for CNN, submitted amidst a swirl of rumors surrounding his future, Zaluzhnyi also addressed the challenge of mass mobilization, a source of tension between himself and President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The general’s article makes no reference to his relationship with the president, nor to reports Zelensky is poised to announce his dismissal after four years in the job, a move a source said could come within days.

Instead, the military commander seeks to build on an argument in an essay published three months ago, in addition to commenting for the first time on a series of political setbacks at home and abroad.

In that first essay, published in the Economist, Zaluzhnyi highlighted the importance of unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare capabilities, as a priority for Ukraine, before concluding, “New innovative approaches can turn this war of position into one of maneuver.”

Zaluzhnyi’s characterization of the situation as a war of position – one defined by attrition and a lack of movement on the battlefield – amounted to a recognition that the Ukrainian counteroffensive, launched to great fanfare earlier in 2023, was effectively over.

Expectations earlier in the year were high that Ukraine could go on the attack and drive forward, conducting a war of maneuver to recapture significant amounts of territory lost to Russia in 2022.

But deep Russian minefields and heavy Russian artillery fire, along with the rapid proliferation of First-Person-View (FPV) drones across the frontlines, making stealth attacks much harder, proved difficult to overcome.

In the south, the primary focus of the effort, Ukrainian forces advanced about 20 kilometers; the hope had been they might be able to make it all the way to the coast, about 70 kilometers away.

When Zaluzhny – in a separate interview at the same time – referred to the situation as a ‘stalemate,’ Zelensky’s office snapped, saying such talk only helped Russia.

In his article for CNN, it seems clear Zaluzhnyi views the state of the war no differently.

Now, though, he clearly believes Ukraine’s military leaders must take account of a series of disappointments and distractions away from the battlefield as well.

Indirectly, he references the failure of the United States to agree a new military aid package for Ukraine, as well as the fact that developments in the Middle East since October have drawn international attention elsewhere.

In addition, “the weakness of the international sanctions’ regime means Russia … is still able to deploy its military-industrial complex in pursuit of a war of attrition against us.”

He does not say it in as many words, but the article seems to suggest a growing sense that, ultimately, Ukraine’s fate is in its own hands.

An attitude of self-help is not new in Ukraine, of course.

It has prioritized its home-grown drone industry, for instance, notching up successes both in its sea drone program, striking Russian naval targets in the Black Sea, and with its long-range aerial drones, flying hundreds of kilometers to hit sites in and around Russia’s largest cities.

But domestic problems are clearly a concern, as when Zaluzhnyi references the apparent reluctance of his political masters in Kyiv to get fully behind his call for greater mobilization for up to half a million draftees, an acknowledgment of Russia’s overwhelmingly superior troop numbers.

“We must acknowledge the significant advantage enjoyed by [Russia] in mobilizing human resources and how that compares with the inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve the manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures,” he writes.

In a society possibly reluctant to put large numbers of young men and women directly in harm’s way, remote-controlled drones provide a more acceptable type of combat operation, as he acknowledges.

Technology, he writes at one point, “boasts an undoubted superiority over tradition.”

But its importance goes much further, he says, as he sets out his belief that unmanned aerial vehicles, along with other high-tech capabilities have revolutionized not just combat operations but the overall approach to strategy, too.

Only an end to “outdated, stereotypical thinking” can help modern armies achieve victory in war, he writes.

Read Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s full essay here.

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