KYIV (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Ukrainian troops on the southeastern front and handed out medals, his office said on Sunday amid intense speculation that his popular army chief could soon be sacked.

“It’s an honour to be here today. To support the warriors and award them. They face a difficult and critical mission to repel the enemy and defend Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said in a statement after visiting Zaporizhzhia region.

The presidential office said in the statement that Zelenskiy visited the Ukrainian military’s forward positions near the village of Robotyne, which is located almost on the battle line.

The southeastern settlement of Robotyne had been liberated in late August in the counteroffensive against Russian forces.

The president’s visit to the battle lines came at a time of uncertainty over the fate of army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.

Two sources said on Friday that the Ukrainian government had informed the White House that it plans to fire the country’s top military commander overseeing the war against Russian occupation forces.

The alleged move to oust Zaluzhnyi, who has clashed with Zelenskiy over a range of issues, follows a Ukrainian counteroffensive last year that failed to recover significant amounts of Russian-held territory.

Known as “the Iron General”, Zaluzhnyi is extremely popular. His removal could hurt morale among Ukrainian troops battling to hold positions along more than 620 miles (1,000 kms) of frontlines against a vast Russian force armed with large munitions stockpiles.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by David Goodman and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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