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The rise of Ukraine’s ‘iron general,’ who transformed its army and became Putin’s worst nightmare

Valerii ZaluzhnyiCommander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi delivers a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 19, 2022.

Yuliia Ovsiannikova / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

  • Valerii Zaluzhnyi has been the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces since July 2021. 
  • He has been largely credited for Ukraine’s successful military strategies against Russia. 
  • Zaluzhnyi, who once wanted to be a comedian, has silently been modernizing the military since 2014.
Almost one year after Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian military is still standing strong.Ukraine flag over rubble.Ukraine’s flag over rubble.

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A large part of its success has been credited to the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.Valerii ZaluzhnyiCommander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 19, 2021.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Zaluzhnyi spent the last few years reforming the Ukrainian army in preparation for the invasion, which he predicted several years ago.Valerii ZaluzhnyiCommander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi attends a session of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv, on December 28, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

Source: The Economist 

Zaluzhnyi was born in 1973 in a Soviet military garrison, located northwest of the capital Kyiv.ZhytomyrPeople walk past a rocket crater and destroyed buildings that were damaged in a Russian attack in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on March 20, 2022.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Zaluzhnyi was born in a village called Novohrad-Volyns’kyi, in Zhytomyr Oblast. The region experienced heavy Russian shelling in the early months of the war. 

Zaluzhnyi was born in the garrison because his father was stationed there. It is unclear what military ranking his father had. 

Source: Time Magazine

Though he once considered becoming a comedian, Zaluzhnyi decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in the military.odessa military academyCadets of the Military Academy of Odessa and the Institute of the Naval Forces of Ukraine in Odessa, southern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022.

Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images

Zaluzhnyi joined the Institute of Land Forces of the Odessa Military Academy in the early 1990s just as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Several years later, he attended the National Defence Academy in Kyiv, where he graduated with honors in 2007.

From 2007 to 2013, Zaluzhnyi quickly climbed up the rankings, taking up a few military posts including as commander of a mechanized brigade.

In 2020, he received his Master’s degree in International Relations from The National University Ostroh Academy. He also attended many NATO trainings outside of Ukraine. 

Source: Politico, Time Magazine


Zaluzhnyi was a hard-working student and valued education.The National University of Ostroh Academy iThe National University of Ostroh Academy in Rivne Oblast, Ukraine where Zaluzhnyi graduated in 2020.

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“You see there was this mix, he’s done something on the battlefield, he commands the troops, he goes back to studying, he gets promoted, he does a little bit of everything,” Marina Miron, a research fellow in the Defence Studies Department at Kings College London, told Insider.


Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 became a pivotal moment for Zaluzhnyi, who commanded several Ukrainian military units there.crimea khersonA serviceman of the Ukrainian Armed Forces takes part in military drills near the border with Russian-annexed Crimea.

Press Service of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters

During his post in Crimea, Zaluzhnyi started making some tactical changes to the military that moved away from the old Soviet mentality and paved the way for new fighting tactics. 

Miron told Insider that the war in Donbas was a “huge influence” on his leadership style.

“The war in Donbas shaped his idea of basically creating this flexible structure within the Ukrainian Arm Forces, seeing how wars are being conducted in contemporary times,” Miron said. 

Source: Time Magazine

“I had read a lot of books, I had graduated from all the academies with a gold medal, I understood everything theoretically, but I did not understand what war really meant [until 2014],” Zaluzhnyi once said.A damaged Russian military vehicle and military boots are seen after Russian Forces withdrawal as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Izium, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine on September 14, 2022.A damaged Russian military vehicle and military boots are seen after the Russian withdrawal in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine on September 14, 2022.

Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“But in eight years of war, until 2022, both I and people like me understood it all perfectly well,” he told The Economist.

In 2019, Zaluzhnyi was put in command of Ukrainian Ground Forces in the northern Cherinihiv region — a high-ranking position he never thought he would get.Valerii ZaluzhnyiCommander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi attends a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 24, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

In an interview with ArmyInform, Zaluzhnyi said it was always his dream to become a soldier, but that he never expected to be a top commander 

“My promotion was like a normal soldier. I was appointed — I took up my duties, took office, was offered another — also moved,” he told ArmyInform, according to Politico. “I never thought that one day I would become a general and reach high ranks.”

Two years later, in July 2021, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave him the top job, appointing him as the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.Valerii ZaluzhnyiUkraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomes Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 28, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

Ukraine’s Armed Forces are comprised of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

As the commander-in-chief, Zaluzhnyi is responsible for “combat readiness, training, and the use of the Armed Forces,” he previously told Radio Svoboda, according to a Politico translation.

Source: Radio Svoboda

Zaluzhnyi got to work quickly. He was eager to shed the USSR military dogma and started introducing military strategies that were similar to those of the US or NATO.President of the United States Joe Biden during the press conference on the final day of the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022.President Joe Biden at the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2022.

Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Zaluzhnyi pushed to reform Ukraine’s ex-Soviet military to follow a more Western model where lower-level officers can make decisions and innovate.

“He’s more in favor of operating in small and dispersed units who are autonomous, rather than the USSR style top-down leadership,” Miron told Insider. 

This “requires training, it requires trust, it requires command and leadership because you have to trust your commanders on the ground that they are taking the right decisions,” she added.

Source: Politico

Zaluzhnyi previously said he has been preparing for a Russian invasion ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.kyiv trafficInhabitants of Kyiv, Ukraine, leave the city following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022.

Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Two months after his promotion, Zaluzhnyy told Ukrainian Radio Svoboda that he is doing everything to prepare the army for a “full-scale aggression” from Russia.

Less than a year later, on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Zaluzhnyi has emerged as the military mind his country needed,” the highest-ranking officer in the US military, Mark Milley, told Time Magazine last year.Gen. Mark MilleyChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on November 16, 2022.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

“His leadership enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to adapt quickly with battlefield initiative against the Russians,” he added. 

Source: Time Magazine, Politico

Zaluzhnyi is dedicated to the fight against Russia. In January 2023, the general donated $1 million that he inherited to the Ukrainian Army.

—Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (@CinC_AFU) October 6, 2022


Zaluzhnyi inherited the $1 million from a Ukrainian-American software developer called Gregory Stepanets, his family told The New York Times.

Ironically, Zaluzhnyi has said one of his idols is General Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian Armed Forces, who is fighting for the other side.Valery GerasimovValery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, in Moscow, Russia, on January 23, 2018.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

“I learned from Gerasimov. I read everything he ever wrote … He is the smartest of men, and my expectations of him were enormous,” Zaluzhnyi told Time Magazine.

“I was raised on Russian military doctrine, and I still think that the science of war is all located in Russia,” he said, adding that he keeps Gerasimov’s collected works in his office. 

Miron told Insider: “It’s interesting now to see that Zaluzhnyi is now on the one hand for Ukraine, and Gerasimov, somebody whom he admired, is right on the other side in that same role.”



Officers interviewed by Radio Donbas called Zaluzhnyi an “open” leader who understands the problems of soldiers and junior officers and does not shy away from making crucial changes.Valerii ZaluzhnyiA graffiti mural of General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, seen in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on December 20, 2022.

Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Source: Radio Donbas

“I think Zaluzhnyi is more liked because he has this human side and he’s not trying to impose his authority. He knows where to impose it, certainly. But he’s not abusing his authority,” Miron told Insider.Valerii ZaluzhnyiBoys sit under a monument painted with an image of Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in central Kherson, Ukraine, on November 20, 2022.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

The success in Ukraine has made Zaluzhnyi hugely popular among Ukrainians, earning him the nickname “iron unbreakable.”Valerii ZaluzhnyiUkraine supporters hold a banner with a portrait of Valerii Zaluzhnyi during a protest against the war in Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, on October 16, 2022.

Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

Miron said his nickname is ironic, because “his leadership style is very, very different from this iron fist.”

Source: Politico

Despite his popularity, Zaluzhnyi prefers to stay out of the limelight. He has declined most interviews and only issues public statements on his Facebook page.

—Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (@CinC_AFU) November 21, 2022


He also doesn’t appear to have any political motivations, and likes his position in the military, Miron told Insider.Valerii ZaluzhnyiCommander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi delivers a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 19, 2022.

Yuliia Ovsiannikova / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

“Zaluzhnyi seems to be a little bit different in the sense that he’s not seeking the spotlight, he’s not trying to get into politics,” Miron told Insider. 

Miron said she believes Zelenskyy will not replace his military commander anytime soon “because there are a lot of people who like Zaluzhnyi, who support Zaluzhnyi, and who listen to Zaluzhnyi. And replacing him, especially now, might be very, very risky.”

Read the original article on Business Insider