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Tensions between Ukraine's president and a top general have boiled over

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

European leaders have passed what is a delayed aid package for Ukraine. It allocates more than $50 billion to the country that has been at war since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. It comes at a time when a major shake-up appears to be in the works, as tensions between Ukraine's president and top general have boiled over.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And that general, who is well respected by Ukraine's allies and beloved by Ukrainians, is at risk of losing his job. And that could divide the Ukrainian public at a crucial time, as Ukrainian soldiers struggle to defend the front line with fewer resources from the West.

FADEL: Joining us now to talk about this is Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with this aid package that passed today. How does this affect Ukraine's war effort?

KAKISSIS: So it's going to be a huge boost. Ukraine's going to be able to pay for ammunition for weapons. It's going to be able to start economic programs, improve infrastructure, all these things that it doesn't have money for right now because it's spending all of its resources to fight Russia. And this package was held up in December by only one vote, Hungary's pro-Kremlin prime minister, Viktor Orban. The EU and Ukraine lobbied Orban to lift that veto, and they finally managed to do that.

Several European leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, they're admitting that they have let down Ukraine in other areas by not following through on other promises, like delivering a million artillery ammunition rounds last year. The EU is now hoping to send just half of that by next month at the earliest. Russia, by the way, is firing three or four times more ammunition than Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are forced to ration ammunition. They're trying to hang on to their positions, even as they fire fewer rounds.

FADEL: So it sounds like, as you said, it's going to be a big boost, but they want more. And the aid from the U.S. is still in limbo. And it's coming at a time of internal turmoil in leadership there. What's behind this feud between the president and this top general?

KAKISSIS: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has had problems for months with General Valeriy Zaluzhny, the military chief he appointed in 2021. And that was before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian media and analysts have said that Zelenskyy wants a military chief who is more loyal to him. Zaluzhny has publicly contradicted Zelenskyy's narrative on the war. And remember; Zelenskyy is a former actor with a powerful communication sense. He's been telling Ukrainians that the country is slowly but surely heading to victory against Russian invaders. While Zaluzhny - he is a lifelong military man. He's a realist. The war is now about to enter its third year, and the front line has barely moved. He says it's a stalemate.

Now, Zelenskyy's spokesman has denied that Zaluzhny has been dismissed, but a source close to the government confirmed to NPR that Zelenskyy did ask Zaluzhny to resign earlier this week but that the general refused. Zelenskyy can also fire Zaluzhny outright. As president, he has the right to do that. But that likely means a very public backlash.

FADEL: We describe Zaluzhny as beloved. I mean, if you could just tell me, how popular is he with Ukrainians?

KAKISSIS: So General Zaluzhny is more popular than President Zelenskyy in some public opinion polls - sometimes a lot more popular. Under Zaluzhny's military leadership, Ukraine was able to defend itself in the early days of the war, and Zaluzhny also led counteroffensives in 2022 that pushed Russian troops out of large parts of occupied land. Ukrainians call him a hero. I haven't met a single Ukrainian who does not rave about him, and the soldiers I've met worship him. They say they trust him with their lives. They talk about how moved they were when he knelt at the coffin of a young and well-known fallen soldier. They tell me, he cares about us.

So if Zelenskyy does fire Zaluzhny, it would be very unpopular, and that would be good news for Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov predicted to reporters that divisions between Ukraine's civilian and military leadership will only grow as Russia's war on the country continues.

FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.