Ukrainians admiringly call him the ‘Iron General’, who with his army has been holding out against a Russian superior force for more than a year. Valery Zaluzhnyj, Ukraine’s highest-ranking soldier, himself has little interest in the tribute. ‘Me, Commander? What do you mean?’
It is a bizarre twist of fate, one that Valery Zaluzhnyi (49) could never have imagined: the Russian he once admired is now his greatest enemy. The ‘Iron General’, as Ukraine’s top military man is nicknamed, was spoon-fed Russian military doctrine in his early years. As a young officer, he greatly admired one of Russia’s top military officers, General Valeri Gerasimov.
The same Gerasimov is now chief of staff of the Russian army and head of military operations in Ukraine. In short, Gerasimov serves a ‘terror state’, as Zaluzhnyi prefers to call Russia. “I learned a lot from Gerasimov,” he told the weekly magazine last year Time, which put him on the cover. “I have read everything he has written. He is one of the smartest people and I had high expectations of him.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been hailed for 453 days as the man whose courage and leadership saved the country from being overrun. But the military mastermind of Ukraine’s successful war effort is one who has been given little prominence. What is clear is that the army means everything to him.
When Zaluzhnyi inherited a million dollars from a complete stranger American of Ukrainian descent at the beginning of this year, he didn’t have to think twice. He immediately deposited it into the army account. “I have given my whole life to the army,” the general said at the time. “And I never doubted for a moment what to do with the inheritance.”
Typical of his level-headed, modest demeanor is that Zaluzhnyi never thought he would make it to general. He just went from promotion to promotion, but he didn’t have a big, sophisticated plan. “I was appointed, I took on duties, I took office and I was offered another one,” he told the Ukrainian military site two years ago. ArmyInform. “I never imagined that one day I would reach the highest ranks and become a general.”
And yet Zaluzhnyj became the architect of the sophisticated strategy to prevent a rapid fall of Kiev in the first days of the war. While the US assumed that the Russians would soon be on the streets of the capital, Zaluzhnyj and the military leadership called for the Russian columns and were quickly halted by small mobile units and inflicted heavy casualties.
Similarly, the rapid advance of the Russians in the east and south was allowed, with the result that the invasion force became vulnerable due to the long supply lines. “We stopped the opponent in all directions,” Zaluzhnyy said on social media last year. “We have caused them losses they have never seen or imagined.”
The commander belongs to a new generation of officers who wanted to transform the army, which had long been based on the Russian model, into a modern, Western armed force, without a rigid hierarchical structure that meant that young, ambitious soldiers had little or no room to make independent decisions. and had to wait for what senior officers had decided.
Zaluzhnyj, born in the north of the country and descendant of a military family, fully experienced those entrenched Russian influences in the military positions he was given. He went through the military academy and made it, among other things, until 2012, commander of a mechanized brigade. The year Zaluzhnyi graduated from Defense University in 2014, he watched as the military was utterly humiliated by Russia’s swift capture of Crimea.
That traumatic experience and the ensuing battle in the Donbas, which the officer experienced personally, strengthened his conviction that the army needed a major overhaul. He was also convinced that a major military confrontation with Russia was only a matter of time. In the summer of 2021, seven months before the invasion, he was called to the highest military office.
The appointment as commander of the armed forces came as a big surprise to Zaluzhnyj. “What do you mean?” he had previously said in astonishment to his associates who told him that Zelensky wanted to appoint him. It felt like he had taken a huge blow. “Not below the belt, but one that completely knocked me out.”
A few months later, he found himself in the bloodiest war in Europe since the end of World War II, and the whole country looked to him for an answer to the question of how to defeat the Russian bear. Although the end of the war is still uncertain, Zaluzhnyi has already secured its place in history.
He never felt like a soldier of the caliber of George Patton, or of other great American generals. But he is now placed in that corner. After all, what general can say that, with a small but determined army, he delivered thump after thump to the greatest nuclear power and even militarily staggered it?
Zaluzhnyi has no doubts that the battle must be fought to the bitter end, despite the heavy losses. “The price is high,” he told his compatriots and the world on Twitter. “But the price of defeat is much higher.”