Oleksandr Syrski, head of the Ukrainian army. Born in Russia, veteran of the USSR. Who is he and what will he change?

, 13:10, 11.02.2024
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Oleksandr Syrski, known for defending Kyiv in 2022, replaces General Valery Zaluzhny as Ukraine's army chief. Syrski's experience and approach differ from Zaluzhny's, emphasizing defense.

Oleksandr Syrski, head of the Ukrainian army. Born in Russia, veteran of the USSR. Who is he and what will he change?

Who is Oleksandr Syrski? Veteran of the USSR army, defender of Kyiv

Oleksandr Syrski, a Russian-born figure known for successfully defending Kyiv in 2022, has replaced the popular General Valery Zaluzhny as army chief. Who is he and what can we expect from him?

Oleksandr Syrski has been named the new head of Ukraine's armed forces after President Volodymyr Zelensky carried out a long-awaited military reshuffle this week. Zelensky said "urgent changes" are needed; otherwise, Ukraine will not be able to "achieve the goals of our country on the ground," he said. Since the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023, Zelensky has - according to media reports - had tense relations with Syrski's predecessor, General Valery Zaluzhny. There are also speculations that Zaluzhny plans to enter politics and run against Zelensky after the elections. The publicly popular general did not express political ambitions.

Announcing Syrski's nomination, Zelensky praised the new commander's experience on the battlefield - his key role both in the defense of Kyiv in the early stages of the war and in Ukraine's lightning offensive in 2022. Before his latest promotion, Syrski was the supreme commander of the Ukrainian land forces. He is seen by many observers as "a product of Soviet military doctrine" that focuses more on objectives and less on protecting soldiers' lives. In an interview with DW, former British military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge warned that Syrski is "less popular among soldiers" than Zaluzhny precisely because he is "less opposed to making sacrifices."

Who is Oleksandr Syrski? Veteran of the USSR army, defender of Kyiv

Oleksandr Syrski was born in 1965 in Russia, near Moscow. In the 1980s, he attended the Moscow Military Command School and then served for another five years in the Soviet army. As a young officer, he was stationed in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He then rose through the ranks of the Ukrainian military, ultimately coordinating Kyiv's efforts to put down a revolt by pro-Russian rebels in 2014.

Before Russia launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022, Syrski was best known for his 2015 action in the Russian-held town of Debaltsevo in Donbas. Syrski formed a military group called Bars (Snow Leopard) to provide cover for the evacuation of Ukrainian soldiers from the Russian-created cauldron. For this, he received a medal and a promotion, and in 2019 he became the commander of the Ukrainian land forces.

After Russia attacked in 2022, Syrski was one of the main architects of Kyiv's defense. On his orders, Ukrainian forces established a two-level defense around the city and destroyed bridges and a local dam. According to analysts, these actions made it extremely difficult for the Russians to attack. Russian troops did not reach Kyiv and were eventually forced to retreat. In April 2022, Syrski received the title of Hero of Ukraine from President Zelensky.

Oleksandr Syrski at war in Ukraine. Successful counteroffensives in Kharkov and Kherson

General Syrski took part in Ukraine's successful counteroffensives against Kharkov and Kherson, as a result of which Ukraine quickly regained control over huge swathes of its territory. In the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023, Syrski was also responsible for the defense of Soledar and Bakhmut, from which Ukrainian forces were finally driven out after long and deadly fighting. Many analysts doubted whether the defense of Bakhmut was worth the losses suffered by Ukrainian troops. Syrski himself, however, insisted that holding the city degraded Russia's military power by weakening the Wagner group's mercenaries.

In an interview with Ukrainian television 1+1 in December 2022, Syrski emphasized that the Ukrainian army operates in a completely different way than the Soviet army or even the current Russian army. "We see that for them people are cannon fodder," he said. "We have a completely different approach. For us, people are the greatest value. And not forgetting about the soldiers, you need to go out, talk, meet with commanders, soldiers, sergeants, soldiers. Then you can understand what is happening there, how people live, what problems they have."

Syrski is the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army. What will change?

Currently, Ukrainian troops are under heavy pressure from Russian attacks at various points on the front line, especially in Avdiivka near Donetsk. "Syrski's promotion to the top position may be a major strategic change for Ukraine, especially in the face of differences between Syrski and Zaluzhny on the issue of acceptable losses," says former British military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge in an interview with DW.

"I have no doubt that right now, as we speak here, he is recommending that the Ukrainians stay in Avdiivka as long as possible, regardless of the costs, as he did during the Bakhmut campaign, which, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, was probably a serious mistake," Ledwidge points out.

In turn, military expert Nico Lange told ZDF television that Syrski will likely focus on sustainable defense: "I think General Syrski is someone who knows the Russian armed forces very well and from my point of view it is very important to have someone who is good at defense, given the pressure Ukraine faces in the east.

#Oleksandr Syrski#Kyiv#Russian Agression

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