Trained by Moscow and NATO and hardened in Donbas: The generals who ouftoxed Putin’s forces in Ukraine

Senior commanders like Valeriy Zaluzhny and Oleksandr Syrskyi have masterminded victories over the Kremlin’s troops by turning some of the invader’s tactics against them

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, during a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy and senior US officials in Kyiv on April 24.UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER (via REUTERS)
Cristian Segura (Special Correspondent)

Wars are a natural breeding ground for heroes: you only have to walk through any village in Ukraine to see it. Every municipality contains monuments dedicated to Soviet soldiers who fought against the Third Reich during World War II. But Ukraine, a country that has only existed for 31 years, today needs its own heroes, and Kyiv has found them in the generals leading the defense of the country against the Russian invasion.

Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Malia singled out four men in September who, she said, are set to become “Ukraine’s own heroes.” Maliar stressed that heroism is to be found among all ranks of the military in the “great war of liberation,” but that four officers in particular are on everyone’s lips: Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhny; commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi; Chief of the General Staff Serhiy Shaptala, and Major-General Andriy Kovalchuk, who led the counter-offensive on the southern front that culminated with the withdrawal of Moscow’s forces from Kherson. All four senior officers are credited with masterminding the defense of Kyiv at the beginning of the invasion and the successful counter-punches that have led to Russian retreats on the Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk fronts.

“These people have studied NATO precepts and applied them, but the main factor that makes them military leaders is eight years of experience in Donbas,” says Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of the Razumkov Center for International and Security Policy Analysis. Melnyk served as an advisor to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry during a time when, in his words, “officers were Soviets in Ukrainian uniform.” This has completely changed with a new generation who have been trained by a combination of the Western military powers and the Soviet legacy and schooled in the war in Donbas, Melnyk says.

“This generation has had eight years of apprenticeship on the front lines, on a large scale, and that’s something that no other army in the world can say,” notes Mark Savchuk, a noted political analyst and member of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. “These are officers who had to build an armed forces from scratch; from upgrading uniforms for combat to obtaining food rations.”

Ukraine is waging a war of independence and a fight for its very survival, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during a recent interview with EL PAÍS. Facing an invader that does not recognize Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign nation has completely united the population for the first time in four decades. Societal differences over the country’s relationship with Russia have largely been forgotten since February 24, when Vladimir Putin ordered the offensive. But while the most nationalist sections of Ukraine’s electorate still harbor doubts about Zelenskiy, the military is the unifying force, the mirror of a society proud to be resisting the onslaught of a superpower.

In July 2021, when Zelenskiy named Zaluzhny as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the 49-year-old general was under no doubt that a Russian invasion was imminent. Zelenskiy himself was skeptical of the threat until the day that Putin launched his “special military operation” despite the warning of the US’ intelligence apparatus. As reported by Ukrainian media and confirmed by the experts consulted by EL PAÍS, the exchange of information between the Pentagon and Zaluzhny is now daily and direct.

Two months before Russian forces launched the invasion on February 24, Zaluzhny was preparing his army for when the moment arrived. Secretly, and without supplying even his own Defense Ministry with many details, the commander-in-chief was deploying full regiments in the north of the country, above all around Kyiv, and setting up artillery batteries and air defense systems. Troop movements were carried out in such a way that the enemy would be led to believe they were still stationed in their bases. That decision was decisive in saving Ukraine.

The appointment of Zaluzhny and Lieutenant-General Shaptala was the death knell for Soviet military doctrine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine had been stripped of much of their strength and budget following the country’s independence, but that all changed when Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and lent its backing to a separatist uprising in the Donbas region. As of that moment, a process of rearmament and modernization based on NATO military models was undertaken. The younger generation of officers led by Zaluzhny and Shaptala completed the transformation.

Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi (r) with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Izium after the recapture of the city from the Russians on September 14.
Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi (r) with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Izium after the recapture of the city from the Russians on September 14.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Learning from the enemy

The respect Ukraine’s military commanders have among the population is immense. In September, Zaluzhny gave an interview in Time magazine in which he praised his opposite number, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, something unthinkable, for example, for a politician. “I was raised on Russian military doctrine, and I still think that the science of war is all located in Russia,” Zaluzhny told Time. “I learned from Gerasimov. I read everything he ever wrote… He is the smartest of men, and my expectations of him were enormous.” Savchuk interprets this as holding a double meaning: that Ukrainian officers understand their enemy. “Unlike the Russian generals, they have shown that they are military men and that they command the Armed Forces.”

Zaluzhny was trained by the Red Army. This knowledge of the enemy has been key and something that the Russian military has shown it does not possess. Zaluzhny gave an example in his Time interview. Despite numerical inferiority, he laid a trap for the Russian troops advancing on Kyiv, which proved effective because his opponents did not know what they were facing. Months before the invasion, Zaluzhny had identified the three main routes Russia would use to invade from the north, via their own territory and Belarus. Instead of engaging the invader in the early stages of the invasion, he allowed them to advance to Kyiv’s first defensive line and then staged swift attacks with small units on their rear and supply chains. Moscow’s troops discovered too late that the population was not on their side either.

Syrskyi is, after Zaluzhny, the most admired officer in Ukraine. He led the defense of Kyiv and with Kovalchuk masterminded the lightning counter-offensive on the Kharkiv front, which forced a Russian retreat back beyond the borders of Luhansk. The commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces proved that his men knew how to attack as well as defend. Syrskyi’s tactics were based on NATO doctrine, but also on Gerasimov’s own. Unlike the Russian Army, the Ukrainians prefer a less hierarchical structure, where front line commanders have autonomy to act on their own initiative. He also deployed small sections, usually of no more than 12 men, to probe enemy defenses in search of cracks to push his troops through, eventually causing the collapse of the Russian lines.

“Face-to-face fighting in large formations is, from a strategic and operational point of view, a thing of the past,” Gerasimov said in 2014, shortly before the Donbas conflict erupted. Many of his tactics have been applied to the letter by Russian forces in Ukraine, but they have also been adopted by the defending army.

Where Zaluzhny’s military preparations fell short was in the south. Russia overran the Kherson region in a matter of days, cutting off access to much of the Black Sea coast and pushing into Ukraine beyond the Dnipro River. After being launched in the autumn, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has advanced continuously and forced a Russian withdrawal to the eastern bank of the Dnipro. Kovalchuk - a hero of the Donbas war, during which he participated in the liberation of Sloviansk and the Luhansk Airport siege, where he led the 80th Airborne Brigade in the six-week defense despite receiving several wounds - was in charge of operations in the south. Last Saturday, he received a hero’s welcome in Kherson as Ukrainian troops retook the city.

Ukraine has few contemporary national icons. The generals leading the defense of the country are set to become founding heroes of the new Ukraine. Another, less-heralded officer who has been cited as key to disrupting Russia’s plans is 36-year-old Major General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate, who has overseen a sabotage campaign in the Russian rear that according to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies has “far exceeded expectations.”

Like Zaluzhny, every media appearance by Budanov is eagerly attended. The generals make few public pronouncements, but when they do the effect is greater than that of any politician. When Putin ordered a partial mobilization involving 300,000 new recruits in September, Zaluzhny simply said: “We have defeated the Russian professional army; now it is time to do the same to their amateur army.”

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