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Battlefield Woes Mounting, Ukraine Gets A New Top General. Who Is He?

By Mike Eckel and Todd Prince (Eckel is an alumnus of The Fletcher School and Senior News Correspondent)

Wounded, exhausted, rag-tag columns of Ukrainian troops withdrew from Debaltseve in February 2015, after Russia-backed separatist fighters encircled the city in the eastern Donbas region and forced the retreat.

It was a stunning defeat. Ukrainians were livid, and they blamed the country’s leadership — Petro Poroshenko was president then — and the military commanders in charge of the Debaltseve defense.

Commanders “knew they would give it up a month ago,” one angry retreating soldier told RFE/RL as the retreat was under way. “Just give it up. They should’ve moved everyone out earlier and not waited for those deaths.”

“They” includes Oleksandr Syrskiy, now a colonel general and commander of Ukraine’s ground forces who, on February 8, was tapped by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to take over as country’s top military commander.

The change in command comes at a precarious moment for Ukraine’s leadership. Zelenskiy’s decision to promote Syrskiy follows his order dismissing the longtime commander in chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, a figure widely admired among both Ukraine’s military and society more broadly, as well as in the West.

Syrskiy’s elevation has stirred mixed feelings, grumblings among some Ukrainian troops who remember Debaltseve and, more recently, the fight for Bakhmut, a Donbas city that Russia captured in May 2023 after a brutal 10-month offensive.

Some Ukrainian and Western experts questioned the decision to suffer substantial losses in Bakhmut, given that the city had questionable strategic importance. As commander of Ukraine’s ground forces — subordinate to Zaluzhniy — some blamed Syrskiy for that decision, though Zelenskiy is said to have been determined not to cede it to Russian control.

But Syrskiy was also praised for helping prevent invading Russian forces from capturing Kyiv in the days after the start of the full-scale war on February 24, 2022. He was decorated with Ukraine’s highest honor.

“Syrskiy will still be compared to Zaluzhniy, and therefore you don’t envy him,” Oleh Saakyan, a Kyiv-based political scientist,told Current Time. “He’ll be compared to the legendary image of Zaluzhniy; not to the actual person. To win this match is just impossible. Syrskiy will be headed to the electric chair from the start.” 

“Zelenskiy believes he needs someone else but what sort of equipment, troop numbers is this new head going to get?” said Will Pomeranz, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think [Syrskiy] will be in a better position to wage the war.”

“Taking back territory was always going to be a major challenge. We got to used to victories for Ukraine in the first year of the war,” Pomeranz told RFE/RL. “Russia can still dig trenches, still mine fields, and I don’t know if any new general can deal with that. Frankly, it makes Zelenskiy more exposed, especially if he is suffering a decline of popularity.”

‘Such Failures Or Misguided Approaches’

Born in a Russian province east of Moscow, the 58-year-old Syrskiy, like many senior Ukrainian military officers, received his initial training in the Soviet era, studying at the prestigious Moscow Higher Military Command School and then serving as a Soviet artillery officer.

After moving to Ukraine following the Soviet breakup, Syrskiy rose through the ranks. When Russia launched its first invasion in 2014 — a stealth effort that used military intelligence to fund and arm local fighters in the Donbas — he was appointed the top commander of what Ukraine called its Anti-Terrorist Operation, to battle the Russia-backed fighters

Debaltseve was one of the first large-scale defeats of Ukrainian troops and was a shock to many Ukrainians.

One year later, Syrskiy defended his decisions there.

“For us, the withdrawal from Debaltseve was a key moment that delayed the enemy’s best forces,” he said. “After these battles, there were no serious, large-scale attempts to launch an attack. The enemy suffered heavy losses.” 

In 2019, he was appointed commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, and was a pivotal figure in the run-up to the Russian invasion in February 2022, including the defensive preparations around Kyiv. In the days after February 24, Russian forces moved to seize the capital — but were thwarted by what observers later said was a combination of smart decisions by Ukrainian commanders, botched maneuvers by Russian officers, and the ingenuity of mid-level Ukrainian officers.

Zaluzhniy was widely hailed, as was Syrskiy, who was decorated as a Hero of Ukraine in 2022 for his role.

Syrskiy was also credited with some of the command decisions that resulted in one of two counteroffensive successes in late 2022 and early 2023 — a push in which Ukrainian forces took back a substantial amount of territory in the Kharkiv region, in the northeast.

But he was also in charge of decisions to dig in and hold on to Bakhmut, a crossroads city in the Donbas that Russia was hellbent on capturing, and Ukraine was hellbent on defending — despite dubious battlefield value. The battle cry “Fortress Bakhmut” was embraced by civilian and military leaders alike.

Dubbed the “meat grinder,” Bakhmut fell after roughly 10 months of a relentless assault that included soldiers from the private mercenary company Wagner, and inmates recruited from Russian prisons.

“The reputation of certain Ukrainian generals has plummeted to the point where they are now likened to Russian counterparts known for deploying careless frontal assaults,” according to a post published on February 7 by Frontelligence Insight, a Ukrainian open-source research organization run by a Ukrainian reserve officer. “This situation is exacerbated by the lack of accountability for such failures or misguided approaches.”

In June 2023, Ukrainian commanders launched a major counteroffensive, aiming to punch through Russian lines in several places. Those efforts, however, faltered by year’s end, thwarted by deep, well-constructed trench lines and anti-tank defenses that inflicted major losses on Ukraine’s NATO-trained brigades.

For some observers, blame falls squarely on Zaluzhniy’s shoulders.

“The fact is Zaluzhniy presided over a counteroffensive that failed,” Mark Cancian, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL. “If you are not succeeding, you need to get someone else in there.”

Further straining Zaluzhniy’s standing in the eyes of the Zelenskiy administration: an article Zaluzhniy published in The Economist last fall, in which he described the war as a “stalemate.” The article irked Zelenskiy, who publicly rebuffed the statement. That, plus Zaluzhniy’s deep and wide popularity inside and outside the military, added to the perception that he was a political threat to Zelenskiy.

The two had also publicly disagreed about whether, and how, to mobilize up to 500,000 new personnel for Ukraine’s military, a politically fraught decision.

In ousting Zaluzhniy, Zelenskiy heaped praise on him, and cited Syrskiy’s successful defensive experience,” including his command of the Kyiv defense and the Kharkiv offense. And in his own public statement on his dismissal, Zaluzhniy wrote that he and Zelenskiy “made a decision on the necessity to change approaches and strategy.” 

“In Syrskiy, President Zelenskiy may be expecting a commander in chief who keeps his views out of the public view more than Zaluzhniy while also receiving the best military advice from him,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general,said in a blog post

Among The Rank And File

Expectations of Zaluzhniy’s ouster had stoked grumblings among some Ukrainian troops. With Syrskiy’s promotion to commander in chief, they grew louder.

“Under Zaluzhniy, there was confidence that decisions were being made by professionals based on military, not political expediency,” an infantry soldier named Iryna who, like other military personnel, asked that only her first name be used. “There is no such certainty now. It’s not just that General Syrskiy is trusted by fewer soldiers than General Zaluzhniy. The fact is that Zaluzhniy’s ouster was preceded by a campaign to discredit [him.]”

“It is not clear what Zaluzhniy did wrong, what was the point of throwing mud at him and the entire army, what can Syrskiy do in this situation,” she told Donbas.Realities, a unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

“The current layer of generals of the Armed Forces is not modern military management. Unfortunately,” said Andriy, a soldier in an airborne assault unit. “The new commander in chief — Syrskiy — is no exception. We are marching in place, all the while losing the best people in this country.”

Oleksiy, a gunner in an artillery unit, blamed Zelenskiy for the current battlefield failures, and accused him of trying to shift the blame to Zaluzhniy.

“Zelenskiy wants to be number one in the world! He wants to be a hero!” he said. “Although he has nothing to do with any military operation. I believe that this is Zelenskiy’s most important mistake, which will cost him the trust of the people. And, unfortunately, it will also cost thousands of dead soldiers and the loss of new territory.”

“Most of my friends are reacting with regret” to the decision to shuffle commanders, Ukrainian Junior Sergeant Pavlo Kazarin, who is also a journalist, told Current Time. “But I repeat: the army is big, up to 1 million people serve in the Ukrainian defense forces, so it would be quite irresponsible on my part to judge the entire mood of the army.”

(This post is republished from RFERL.)

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