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Syrskyi, a general loyal to Zelenskiy to resist the Russian advance

The new commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is one of the most prestigious military leaders in the country, but less popular among the troops than his predecessor, Valerii Zaluzhnyi

Sirski
Oleksandr Syrskyi, the new commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, at a shooting range near Kyiv, October 27, 2020.VITALII NOSACH (EFE)
Cristian Segura

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General Oleksandr Syrskyi is one of the heroes who have emerged from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the most important military position in the country, is highly trusted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — unlike his predecessor, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Syrskyi will go down in history for leading the defense of Kyiv at the beginning of the war, in February and March 2022, and for successfully commanding the lightning counteroffensive that liberated Kharkiv province in September 2022. But according to experts, it will be difficult for Syrskyi to compete with the charismatic Zaluzhnyi, who is idolized by the troops.

Syrskyi is 58 years old and was born in Novinka, a municipality near Moscow. He is the son of a Soviet soldier and part of his family, including his brother, still lives in Russia, according to the Russian state new agency TASS, although Syrskyi no longer maintains relations with them. In 1986, Syrskyi graduated from the Moscow Higher Military Command School, the most important Soviet school in its field. He moved to Ukraine at the end of the 1980s, and since the country’s independence in 1991, he has been one of Ukraine’s most promising officers. In 2013, he was appointed to head the Ukrainian army’s cooperation with NATO. When Zelenskiy was elected president in 2019, he chose to task both Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi with speeding up the Ukrainian army’s transformation to NATO standards. Since then, Syrskyi has been the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces.

Like so many other senior Ukrainian officials, Syrskyi gained greater practical experience as a military leader during the war against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in the east of Ukraine, which began in 2014. This mix of fighting experience against the Russians, knowledge of Soviet military practices and understanding of NATO’s tactical methods has helped high-ranking soldiers like Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi to resist the invasion of a superpower.

Syrskyi is credited for Ukraine’s victory against Russia’s siege of Kyiv and for the surprise offensive that pushed back Russian forces from practically the entire Kharkiv province. In his book The Showman, journalist Simon Shuster — who spent a year and a half with Zelenskiy and his team — reveals that the offensive in Kharkiv was a direct order from Zelenskiy, who entrusted the operation to Syrskyi and overlooked Zaluzhnyi, who was in favor of liberating Kherson province first.

The Showman also claims that it was Zelenskiy who decided to resist until the end in the battle of Bakhmut. This went against the advice of Zaluzhnyi, who was in favor of a withdrawal, claiming that the battle was a fruitless use of resources. Officially, both defended the same strategy, but up to four officers interviewed by EL PAÍS in the summer and autumn of 2023, during the failed counteroffensive on the Zaporizhzhia front, agreed that Zaluzhnyi was in favor of retreating.

Bakhmut was taken by Russia in March 2023, after more than six months of battle. The Ukrainian Armed Forces concentrated its war effort on defending the city in the Donetsk province. During this period, Russia took the opportunity to fortify the entire front with defensive lines that Ukraine has been unable to break with its limited resources. In the battle of Bakhmut, Russia relied heavily on its shock force: Wagner Group mercenaries.

An estimated 30,000 Wagner fighters perished in the battle. Defense analysts and media outlets such as Pravda, The Kyiv Independent and The Financial Times claim that Syrskyi earned a reputation in Bakhmut as a ruthless commander, with few qualms about sacrificing the lives of his men. According to multiple Ukrainian military social media accounts, he was nicknamed “Butcher.”

Divided opinion

“I have to say I was a little surprised by the choice, and it’s already caused real controversy,” Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, wrote in his newsletter. “Syrskyi divided opinion like no other military figure in Ukraine, and his appointment is a risky move by Zelenskiy.”

“The decision made by the president is controversial and comes in a difficult period,” added Serhiy Zgurets, the editor-in-chief of Defense Express, a Ukrainian information company specialized in military analysis. “The level of trust that Zaluzhnyi enjoyed among the military and civilians, Syrskyi will certainly not enjoy it.”

Syrskyi released his first statement as commander in chief on Friday. The general said that “the life and health of personnel have always been and are the main value of the Ukrainian army.” For this reason, he argued: “Maintaining a balance between the performance of combat tasks, units’ recovery, and the intensification of training remains more relevant than ever.”

Syrskyi did not mention one of the issues that Zaluzhnyi had been pressuring Zelenskiy to address: the need for a new massive mobilization of at least 500,000 soldiers, to make up for the hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered in the two years of war. Ukraine’s Parliament, the Rada, has been debating a new mobilization law. But it’s an unpopular issue that Zelenskiy has tried to manage as tactfully as possible, as few people are willing to voluntarily go to war.

In recent months, Zaluzhnyi had said that the war had reached a stalemate and that Ukraine had little chance of recovering territory, at least in 2024, due to the lack of resources from NATO allies. The general concluded that the conflict would be about defending positions, and not involve any major operations. But these statements angered Zelenskiy. Last Sunday, the president said that the military leadership needed a shakeup and more optimistic outlook: “If we want to win we must all push in the same direction, convinced of victory, we cannot lose hope.”

Last January, Syrskyi told Reuters that the war has not reached a stalemate, and that progress could be made in 2024. But Russia currently surpasses Ukraine in all military areas, and is little by little gaining ground again in the provinces of Donetsk and Kharkiv. In his first statement as commander in chief, Syrskyi stressed that the “rational” use of weapons is a priority.

The Ukrainian government has frequently warned that it is running out of weapons due to the obstacles facing aid packages in Europe and the United States. If Republicans and Democrats are unable to reach an agreement on a new military assistance package to Kyiv, the war will tilt in favor of Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden plans to allocate around $60 billion toward Ukraine’s war with Russia. This figure is unlikely to be enough for Ukraine to launch new offensives, but it will help the country resist the Russian invasion. Even with this aid, Ukraine’s defense budget for 2024 is three times smaller than Russia’s. This is the harsh reality that Syrskyi must address.

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