The colonel-general was appointed by President Volodimir Zelenski to replace the popular Valerii Zaluzhnyi. The move is justified by “the country’s goals”, but also questioned, despite Syrskyi’s military achievements.
(DW) With the justification that Ukraine’s military command needs “urgent changes” in order to achieve “the country’s goals” in the war against Russia, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski announced on Thursday (09/02) Oleksandr Syrskyi as the new head of the Armed Forces. He takes over from the popular Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who is said to have a strained relationship with the president.
In appointing Syrskyi to the post, Zelenski praised the new commander’s experience, especially for having played a key role in the defense of Kiev in the first months of the Russian invasion – which began on February 24, 2022 – as well as in the counter-offensives in eastern Ukraine months later.
Days after Russia abandoned its attempt to take the Ukrainian capital, between late March and early April 2022, Zelenski awarded Syrskyi the Hero of Ukraine award, the country’s highest honor. In the decree, the Ukrainian president praised Syrskyi’s “personal courage” and his “significant contribution to the defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Before Russia began the invasion, Syrskyi was best known for coordinating a removal operation in the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve in 2015. He created a military group nicknamed the “Bars” (snow leopards) to provide cover for the soldiers being evacuated. For this, he received a medal and became head of Ukraine’s ground forces, as well as inheriting the nickname “Bars”.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Syrskyi was one of the main architects of the defense of Kiev. On his recommendation, Ukrainian forces established a two-level defense around the city and destroyed bridges and a local dam. According to analysts, these measures made it extremely difficult for the aggressors to advance. The Russian troops were unable to reach Kiev and were eventually forced to withdraw.
Campaigns in the east and south
The colonel-general was also involved in the successful Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south, which resulted in Ukraine quickly regaining control of vast areas of its territory – thus imposing defeats on Russia.
In the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023, Syrskyi was also tasked with defending Soledar and Bakhmut, areas that Ukrainian forces had to abandon after long and bloody battles.
At the time, military analysts questioned whether the defense of Bakhmut had even been successful, given the number of casualties suffered by Ukrainian troops. Syrskyi, however, insisted that defending the city deteriorated Russia’s military power by weakening the Wagner mercenary group.
Syrskyi was born in 1965 in the Vladimir region of the then Soviet Union, now Russian territory, and attended the Moscow Higher Military Command School, where he graduated in 1986, and subsequently served in the Soviet artillery.
Described as an obsessive planner and extremely disciplined, he refutes the label that he is closer to the Soviet military nature than to the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), based on operational flexibility.
In December 2022, Syrskyi said that the Ukrainian army operates completely differently from the Soviet army or even the modern Russian army: “we see that people are cannon fodder for them,” he told Ukrainian broadcaster 1+1.
“We have a completely different approach. For us, people are the greatest value. And not forgetting the troops. You have to go out, talk, get to know the military commanders, sergeants and soldiers. That way, you can understand what’s going on, how people live, what problems they have,” he added.
Fighting in Crimea
In the 1980s, Oleksandr Syrskyi was deployed to Ukraine, which at the time was a Soviet republic. After the end of the bloc in the early 1990s, he decided not to return to Russia and joined the army of the newly independent Ukraine, continuing his studies at the National Defense University in Kiev.
In the 2000s, he commanded the 72nd mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian army, based in Bila Tserkva, about 100 kilometers south of Kiev. In 2009, he was promoted to general and, in 2013, took part in training in cooperation with NATO.
A year later, in 2014, after the pro-European Maidan revolution in Ukraine, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. Syrskyi then became one of the leaders of the operations to prevent Moscow from taking full control of the Donbass region.
At a time when Ukrainian troops have come under pressure from Russian attacks at various points, most notably in Avdiivka, near Donetsk, Syrskyi’s promotion could be a “major strategic shift” for Ukraine, especially in view of the differences between Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi, Frank Ledwidge, a former UK military intelligence officer, told DW.
“For example, I have no doubt that [Syrskyi] is recommending now, as we speak, that the Ukrainians hold out as long as they can in Avdiivka, whatever the cost, just as he did during the Bakhmut campaign, which was in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, probably a big mistake,” Ledwidge said.
On the other hand, military expert Nico Lange told German public broadcaster ZDF that Syrskyi will probably focus more on sustainable defense: “I believe that the general will be someone who knows the Russian Armed Forces very well, and my perspective is that it is very important to have someone who is good at defense, considering the pressure Ukraine is facing in the east.”
Allegedly, the Ukrainian president has had a complicated relationship with Syrskyi’s predecessor, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, since the failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in 2023.
Zaluzhnyi is also rumored to be planning to enter politics and run against Zelenski as soon as elections are scheduled in the country, although the popular general has never publicly expressed any political ambitions.
In Kiev, however, part of the population is openly questioning the move. “This is a very strange decision. We know our enemy, and he is not Zaluzhnyi,” said Svitlana Kalinina, a consultant.
“I’m very upset. I don’t know about the others, but I’m very upset. It’s a movement that worries me,” said Olena, a doctor.
At the end of last year, a poll put public confidence in Zaluzhnyi at over 90%, significantly higher than Zelenski’s 77%.
gb/le (AFP, Reuters, AP, Lusa) *** Translated by DEFCONPress FYI Team ***