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Who is General Syrskyi, Ukraine's new chief commander?

by Dinara Khalilova February 9, 2024 12:44 AM 5 min read
Ukrainian General Coonel Oleksandr Syrsky photographed during an interview on June 30, 2022, in eastern Ukraine. (Anastasia Vlasova for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Following months of reports about a rift in Ukraine's political and military leadership, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who had led Ukraine's military since before the full-scale invasion.

Zelensky replaced Zaluzhnyi with General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who had previously served as the commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces and the Khortytsia Operational and Strategic Group fighting in the country's east.

When announcing the decision, Zelensky called Syrskyi "the most experienced Ukrainian commander" and recalled the achievements attributed to him — the Battle of Kyiv in spring 2022 and the surprise counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022.

Zelensky recently confirmed that he was planning a large-scale reset in the country's leadership, not just the military one, and said that Ukraine needs "fresh energy."

Syrskyi's appointment didn't come as a total surprise. The general has been named as one of the leading candidates to replace Zaluzhnyi, particularly because he has been known to be on good terms with the Presidential Office.

Syrskyi is expected to present a new leadership team of the Armed Forces in the coming days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a flag hoisting ceremony in Izium after the Ukrainian forces took control of the city from the Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast on Sept. 14, 2022. Commander of the Ukrainian Land Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi, Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, Governor of the Military Administration of the Kharkiv Region Oleg Sinegubov also attended the ceremony. (Metin AktaÅ/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Syrskyi's background

Syrskyi was born in 1965 in a small village in Russia's Vladimir region. In the 1980s, he studied at the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School.

Syrskyi continued his military education in independent Ukraine, graduated with honors, and started climbing the army’s career ladder.

As of 2013, the last peaceful year in Ukraine, Syrskyi was a major general and a deputy chief of the armed forces' main command center.

He was responsible for Ukraine's military cooperation with NATO and participated in talks on bringing the Ukrainian army closer to the alliance's standards.

When Russia invaded Ukraine's eastern Donbas region in 2014, Syrskyi was appointed as deputy commander of Ukraine’s defensive operation, known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). Three years later, he took over command.

During the first years of Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, Syrskyi played a key role in the battles for the cities of Debaltseve, Vuhlehirsk, and the villages of Ridkodub and Lohvinove in Donetsk Oblast. He coordinated the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the almost encircled Debaltseve in 2015, for which he received the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a Ukrainian military award.

In August 2019, Syrskyi became the head of Ukraine's Ground Forces, keeping the post when Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Oleksandr Syrskyi. (Syrskyi/Telegram)

Syrskyi's role in all-out war

In spring 2022, Syrskyi was responsible for the defense of Kyiv. Russia reportedly planned to capture Kyiv "in three days" but instead retreated after sustaining heavy losses in the battle that lasted for over a month.

To carry out the defense of Kyiv, Syrskyi ordered all the military training centers to create special temporary battalions and deliver artillery systems normally used for training to the capital, as he then told the Washington Post.

“Syrskyi divided the city and the surrounding region into sectors and assigned generals from the military education centers to lead each area, creating a clear chain of command to which all Ukrainian military units and security services would answer," wrote the Washington Post.

"Tactical decisions would be made immediately by officers on the ground without having to consult headquarters."

Syrskyi also commanded Ukraine's counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast in the fall of 2022, which managed to liberate Izium, Balakliia, Kupiansk, and other cities Russia captured at the start of the full-scale invasion.

Back then, Russia was preparing to repel Ukrainian attacks in occupied Kherson Oblast and redeployed part of its forces there, allowing Ukrainians to launch a swift, successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast.

"The results were striking. On the first day, we advanced 18 kilometers near Balakliia. The main emphasis was on rapid advancement," Syrskyi said in an interview in February 2023.

Syrskyi commanded the eastern group of troops in 2023, which fought in the hottest areas of the front, including the Battle of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast.

Following 10 months of intense fighting and significant losses on both sides, Russia took Bakhmut in May 2023. Ukraine soon launched a counteroffensive operation making small advances on the northern and southern flanks but so far failing to liberate the city.

From the fall of 2023, the Khortytsia group under Syrskyi's command has been fighting near Kupiansk and Lyman in Kharkiv Oblast, where Ukrainian forces are on defense, facing intensified Russian assaults.

Oleksandr Syrskyi and Valerii Zaluzhnyi. (Syrskyi/Telegram)

Reactions to appointment

The dismissal of Ukraine’s chief commander as the country enters the third year of the full-fledged war with Russia sparked a lively discussion among Ukrainians, wondering what the change would mean for the battlefield.

Defense Minister Rustem Umerov commented on Syrskyi's appointment, saying that “it is a great honor and great responsibility to lead the Armed Forces of Ukraine!”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor for the Presidential Office, said that Zelensky’s decision to fire Zaluzhnyi was justified by “the need to review the tactics of actions, which did not fully ensure the proper result last year, to prevent stagnation on the front line, which negatively affects public sentiment, and to find new functional and high-tech solutions that will allow to maintain and develop the initiative.”

Ivan Stupak, a military observer and former employee of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), told the Kyiv Independent that according to Stupak’s sources in law enforcement, Zaluzhnyi recommended Syrskyi as his successor.

“Another positive is the fact that he (Syrskyi) is not far from the army… he is active in the material… he knows almost everyone in the army,” Stupak said.

However, some Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers are not satisfied with Syrskyi’s appointment, referring to him as a “butcher" who is “fond of meat assaults” and “extremely brutal discipline,” according to Stupak.

“Another negative is the fact that politics, most likely, will actively interfere in military affairs precisely through Syrskyi because of his loyalty (to the Presidential Office),” he added.

Denys, a 34-year-old commander of a mortar battery within the 24th Separate Assault Battalion “Aidar,” told the Kyiv Independent that he was not happy with Syrskyi becoming the new chief commander.

“He is the commander of our direction — the Soledar operational-tactical group. There are legends about how it is impossible to transfer from here. Brigades have been deployed non-stop here for 1.5 years,” said Denys, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to security reasons.

“Syrskyi pushed for the bloody defense of Bakhmut when it was worth taking people out of there. This is a man led by Zelensky.”

Speaking with the Kyiv Independent, Dmytro, a mortarman with the 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade near Bakhmut, said that Zaluzhnyi “was like a father to many” but suggested he might be in the place when there is a “need to rest and collect your thoughts.”

“Maybe Syrskyi will bring something new,” he said.

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