At the end of this week, two key events made the global media once again mention the Russia-Ukraine war on their front pages.
The first event was the dismissal of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi and the appointment of Colonel General Syrskyi in his place. Rumors about this decision of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi have been circulating for more than a week, but the official announcement was made only on Thursday, February 8.
The second event was an interview Russian dictator Vladimir Putin gave to American blogger and propagandist Tucker Carlson. Tucker claimed that he was the first in the United States to seek the viewpoint of the leader of the aggressor country; however, he heard nothing but familiar propaganda, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-historical myths.
Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal: what was the purpose?
The decision President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has made to replace Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi with Ground Force Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi is likely to be unpopular with troops worn down by nearly two years of war, The Washington Post argues.
According to the media outlet, during the 10 days after the president told Zaluzhnyi that he was being dismissed, he gave no explanation, saying only that change was needed. Zelenskyi considered Zaluzhnyi’s plans for this year too ambitious considering Ukraine’s limited resources, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking. For the past two years, however, Syrsky has essentially functioned as the military’s second-in-command, and so it’s unclear what change he can introduce.
Syrsky, 58, was credited with leading the defense of Kyiv in the first month of the full-scale war and then orchestrating a successful counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region in fall 2022. However, among rank-and-file soldiers, Syrsky is widely considered to be a Soviet-style commander who kept forces under fire far too long during the battle for Bakhmut, which resulted in the death of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.
"I only know what I’ve heard from my subordinates. One hundred percent of them don’t respect him because they don’t think he counts soldiers’ lives. In comparison with Zaluzhnyi, he gets much lower support," says a high-ranking military official, cited by The Post.
Relations between Zelensky and Zaluzhny had frayed for months, in part because of a failed counteroffensive last year that failed to achieve any significant territorial gains. Last fall, Zelenskyi objected to Zaluzhnyi’s claim that the war had become a "stalemate", and more recently, he publicly and privately questioned the need to mobilize 500,000 soldiers.
Zelensky also viewed Zaluzhny as a possible political rival and threat because of his high popularity ratings, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said.
Zaluzhnyi and the Pentagon
Western officials refrained from publicly commenting on Zaluzhny's dismissal.
"President Zelensky is the commander in chief of his armed forces," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday. "He gets to decide who his leadership is going to be in the military. That’s what civilian control is all about. We know that. And we’ll work with whoever he has in charge of his military."
According to Politico, Zaluzhnyi had disagreements with the Pentagon over how the counteroffensive was to be waged.
The Pentagon pushed for the Ukrainian military to make a major thrust and break through the defenses of the invaders, but Kyiv chose several assaults across the front to scatter Russian forces.
"It became pretty clear over the course of the offensive that Ukrainians just weren't interested in U.S. advice," said one person who has advised the White House on military matters. According to the adviser, Ukrainian commanders believed that the United States didn’t have experience fighting this kind of war, and therefore their advice was irrelevant. However, the person added, it was up to Zelenskyi as Supreme Commander-in-Chief to have the final say on strategic decisions, so Zaluzhnyi shouldn’t be the only one to blame.
What Zaluzhnyi failed to accomplish and what Syrskyi is expected to do
BBC reminds that it was Zelenskyi who handpicked Zaluzhnyi for the position in 2021, ahead of more senior officers. It is the president's prerogative to appoint who he wants as leader of the nation's military, the media outlet adds.
"When it becomes apparent that the government has lost confidence in you, it is your duty to step down because of the principle of civilian control over the military," said General Ben Hodges, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe.
According to Hodges, Zaluzhnyi was trying to reform Ukraine's military to get rid of the old Soviet-era thinking and implement modern NATO principles. But defense expert Justin Crump says it was a near impossible task, not least because Ukrainian soldiers were often only given a few weeks of Western training.
The Guardian doubts that Syrskyi will improve Ukraine’s position on the battlefield, although acknowledges his military achievements. Allies of the new Commander-in-Chief emphasize his dedication, recalling that "he didn’t sleep for three days" after the Russian invasion. Syrskyi also emphatically distances himself from politics.
An interview with a terrorist: the world’s reaction
On Thursday, February 8, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson published a two-hour interview with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
The Washington Post notes that Putin likely agreed to talk to Carlson because of the latter’s repeatedly expressed sympathy to him, as well as the ex-journalist's popularity with supporters of Donald Trump, who has wielded his political weight to block military aid to Ukraine in U.S. Congress.
Carlson used to be known for his combative interviews, but this time he stood in confounded silence as Putin was giving his 30-minute pseudo-historical tirade, irritably cutting off attempts to ask him a question.
By the end of the conversation, it was clear that Putin had no intention of ending his brutal war against Ukraine, The Post concludes. Carlson did not ask a single question about Russia’s attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine, which have killed thousands. or the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and other war crime allegations. or political crackdowns on Russians staging anti-war protests.
Instead, Carlson posed increasingly esoteric questions — including whether any world leader could be a true Christian — and at times appeared to goad Putin into alleging a U.S. deep state and promote other conspiracy theories.
"I’m not exactly sure what I thought of the interview. … It’s going to take me a year to decide what that was," said Carlson in a video published on his website. The propagandist also said that Putin was not good at explaining himself and felt "wounded" by the rejection of the West.
The media community against the pseudo-journalist
"What you see from watching the first 45 minutes of this, is that this is President Putin’s platform," Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, remarked, adding that it was "clear from the very beginning" of the interview that Carlson did "not have control."
It was a massive propaganda victory for Putin, CNN proceeded. This can be understood from the massive coverage given to the interview by the aggressor country’s main propaganda mouthpieces, such as TASS and RT.
There was only one moment in which Carlson did gently press Putin, asking about Evan Gershkovich, the reporter for The Wall Street Journal imprisoned on espionage charges.
"He’s a kid, and maybe he was breaking your law in some way, but he’s not a super spy and everybody knows that," Carlson said ingratiatingly.
The media community was also infuriated by Carlson’s claims that he was the first one willing to interview Putin, Politico wrote.
BBC’s Russia Editor Steve Rosenberg posted that the BBC has "lodged several requests with the Kremlin in the last 18 months. Always a ‘no’ for us."
"Poor, poor Vladimir Putin. Until now, nobody in the West has had the chance to hear him explain all the excellent reasons for why he had to invade Ukraine. Not in the speech that was broadcast live on every global network the morning of the invasion, and not in countless others," mocked the Wall Street Journal’s Chief Foreign-Affairs Correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov.
Politicians respond: these lies endanger democracy
The Guardian quotes responses from Western politicians to the dictator’s claims. Thus, Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, called Putin’s claim that the war in Ukraine was a result of Nato expansion "clearly ridiculous".
"Russia conducted an illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. I’m proud that the UK has stood strongly with Ukraine from the beginning," said Sunak.
Peter Stano, a foreign affairs spokesperson for the European Commission, said that the interview was just a repeat of Putin’s usual "lies" and "war propaganda" aimed at "justifying atrocities" and "normalizing aggression". The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, wrote that he was shocked by an American journalist enabling the spread of Putin’s "paranoid justifications" for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.