The rise of Ukraine's 'iron general,' who transformed its army and became Putin's worst nightmare
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.
A large part of its success has been credited to the commander-in-chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
Zaluzhnyi spent the last few years reforming the Ukrainian army in preparation for the invasion, which he predicted several years ago.
Source: The Economist
Zaluzhnyi was born in 1973 in a Soviet military garrison, located northwest of the capital Kyiv.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Zaluzhnyi previously said he has been preparing for a Russian invasion ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
The success in Ukraine has made Zaluzhnyi hugely popular among Ukrainians, earning him the nickname "iron unbreakable."
Miron said his nickname is ironic, because "his leadership style is very, very different from this iron fist."
Zaluzhnyi is admired so much that in February, a town that lies around 25 miles from Kharkiv was renamed in his honor.
The town, which was previously called Vatutine, is now called Zaluzhne in honor of the top general.
Vatutine was previously named after Soviet general Nikolai Vatutin who was responsible for Red Army operations in Ukraine during World War II.
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.
"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."
Editor's note: This list was first published in January 2023 and has been updated to reflect recent developments.
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