For months from late summer, Ukraine’s forces pursued a meticulous counteroffensive to retake the southern city of Kherson from occupying Russian troops — without having to fight street by street.
Commanded by General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the army’s aim was to deploy precision western artillery to cut Russia’s supply lines across the Dnipro River while minimising Ukrainian losses in the face of a larger Russian force. Surgical strikes targeted weapons depots, command posts and two bridges that link to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to gradually isolate more than 20,000 Russian troops.
The strategy culminated in a defeat for Vladimir Putin as the Russian president’s forces retreated from Kherson city and other parts of the province just over a week ago.
Behind Ukraine’s battlefield success since Russia’s full-blown invasion in February is the guiding hand of the man Ukrainians call the “iron general”.
“It’s wonderful when you know the enemy, how he operates and with the help of foreign partners can hit them in their weak spots,” said Vitaly Markiv, a Ukrainian national guard officer who took part in the earlier counteroffensive that liberated swaths of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region. “This is how commander-in-chief Zaluzhnyi operates.”
Zaluzhnyi’s skill at adapting to a fast-changing battlefield was demonstrated in Kharkiv, where his troops reported that the Russian frontline had become thinly guarded. In contrast to the slow attrition that succeeded in Kherson, Zaluzhnyi and his generals seized the moment. In September they led a lightning counterstrike that sent Russian soldiers fleeing in haste — leaving everything from tanks and boots behind.
“That’s exactly how Kharkiv and Kherson happened . . . Opportunistic warfare,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former Ukraine defence minister and current government adviser on security.
Zagorodnyuk attributed Zaluzhnyi’s success to his ability to delegate, encourage initiative among lower ranks and obtain the feedback needed to react to opportunities.
“People on the ground know the situation much better than in Kyiv. They are there. They help to build this opportunistic warfare when they see the weak spots of the enemy,” he said.
The general’s command style “allows others to realise their capacities and talents”, whereas in Russia’s military, “only one to two people make decisions and the rest are told to shut up”, he said. Coupled with modern weaponry provided by western backers, “this advantage outweighs the larger number of artillery, tanks and everything else Russia has,” he added.
Military analysts say this top-down approach in which field commanders are afraid to take the lead has put Russia on the back foot. Ukraine, meanwhile, is not expected to loosen its grip.
“No way the Ukrainians pause for the winter . . . They will keep the pressure on the Russian forces, not allow them time to fix their problems or strengthen defences,” Ben Hodges, former commander of the US army in Europe, tweeted after the liberation of Kherson.
After General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, suggested Kyiv could use winter to reach a settlement with Russia, Zaluzhnyi, who rarely speaks out in public, demurred. In a Facebook post he said he had told his US counterpart in a phone call this week that “our objective is to liberate the whole Ukrainian land from the Russian occupation. We will not stop on this way under any circumstances . . . The only term for negotiation: Russia must leave all the captured territories”.
A US military official praised Zaluzhnyi’s ability to react swiftly to Russia’s movements and failures. As an example he cited the defence of Kyiv in the early days of the war, where Russian troops overstretched their supply lines and became bogged down, only to be battered by Ukrainian units operating on their flanks.
“He kept his forces agile and never allowed them to get fixed. Staying on the move is difficult and takes discipline,” the official said.
In the battle for Kyiv, Zaluzhnyi’s decision to disperse Ukrainian air defences was crucial to preventing Russia from attaining full air superiority, the official added.
Born in the city of Novohrad-Volynsky in the west of the country, Zaluzhnyi, 49, graduated from a local machine building school in 1993, two years after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. He later enrolled in an army academy in the Black Sea port of Odesa, graduating in 1997.
He was deployed to the eastern region of Donbas after 2014, when Moscow began fomenting a proxy war there. Ukraine’s underfunded army was initially caught flat-footed and lost swaths of territory to Russian-backed separatists. But it was here that Kyiv’s troops regrouped and became battle-hardened — and where Zaluzhnyi forged a reputation for unorthodox initiatives.
In one episode he moved artillery across “almost impassable areas of terrain” to blow up a weapons depot, recalled Lieutenant-General Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, formerly Zaluzhnyi’s commander. “It worked masterfully,” said Zabrodskyi. “There was no reaction from the enemy because it was too fast.”
Appointed to his current role in July 2021, the four-star general has been hailed a hero, yet few outside military circles have heard his voice. He rarely gives interviews and a person close to him said he spends most of his time hunkered down in war rooms.
Zaluzhnyi “is a product of the new Ukrainian generation of officers”, said Zagorodnyuk. “You can see that while you talk with him. He is informal and dresses down. He speaks plainly [and is] very straightforward. There is no aura of exclusivity about him.”
The general, who is married and has two daughters, has become a staple of Ukrainian social media, where memes make affectionate reference to his bearlike figure.
On Putin’s 70th birthday this autumn, an army Telegram channel posted a caricature of an oversized Zaluzhnyi standing behind the Russian leader, covering the eyes of the smaller man as he was about to blow out the candles on a cake. Hours later, a huge explosion damaged the Kerch Bridge that was built on Putin’s orders to connect Crimea to Russia.
Rumours of tensions between the military chief and Ukraine’s popular president Volodymyr Zelenskyy have swirled in recent months as polls show Zaluzhnyi is also one of the country’s most trusted figures. Both insist this is Russian disinformation intended to stoke tension within Kyiv’s leadership. But people familiar with the situation said Zaluzhnyi had been asked to ease off on building his public profile.
Zaluzhnyi himself does not take all the credit for Ukraine’s battlefield successes, using social media to praise fellow officers, ordinary troops and civilians.
Those he names include Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, head of Ukraine’s ground forces, for his role in the Kyiv defence and eastern counteroffensive and the lieutenant-generals Serhiy Shaptala and Serhiy Nayev, who commands Ukraine’s Donbas forces.
“Real leadership and courage are revealed in decisive situations,” Zaluzhnyi wrote recently. “Our commanders are not guided by the principle for troops to simply ‘go forward’. Instead we say ‘follow my lead’.”
For Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, Zaluzhnyi’s talent lies in using Ukraine’s smaller size to its advantage. “Like David versus Goliath,” he said, “we are hitting them with slingshots”.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Kyiv.