(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned his military leadership against dabbling in the country’s politics, taking a jab at his top commander after tension between the two came to light.
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In comments to The Sun newspaper, Zelenskiy referred mainly to military officers who entered politics in the years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. But he explicitly singled out the current command, including Ukraine’s popular army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.
“With all the respect to General Zaluzhnyi and to all the commanders who are on the battlefield, there is an absolute understanding of the hierarchy and that is it — and there can’t be two, three, four, five,” he said in an interview to the British newspaper published Tuesday.
Zaluzhnyi stoked a public spat with the president’s office this month, when he described the war as a stalement in comments to The Economist. The president’s office challenged the assessment, laying bare what many viewed as divisions between Zelenskiy and his top brass over the war.
The military commander hasn’t signaled any political ambition. But his popularity has given rise to speculation that he may be the only public figure in position to challenge Zelenskiy. He appeared alongside the country’s defense minister, Rustem Umerov, on Monday, discussing the battlefield developments with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
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Zelenskiy has ruled out holding elections next year, citing martial law and saying the country must concentrate on the war effort. Ukrainian media have focused on the issue, particularly after US Republicans — many resistant to continued spending on Kyiv — called for a vote to underscore democracy.
The tension in Kyiv comes on top of a grim mood among government and military officials, with winter setting in after a months-long counteroffensive has yielded no major military advances. Still, popular support for the military remains above 90%, while Zelenskiy’s approval ratings — though still high — has seen a small decline over the past months.
Ukrainian law only allows one person to have decision-making power during war, otherwise national unity may be threatened, Zelenskiy told The Sun. He also warned that military commanders risked being disobeyed by soldiers if they became political.
Zelenskiy referred to political forces pushing the military into politics. The president recalled the tenure of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, when the country first experienced combat with Russian-backed forces after 2014, and battle commanders began to wade into politics.
“Each political party wanted some military men, stars of the war, and I believe that was a very big mistake,” Zelenskiy said in the interview.
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