General Oleksandr Syrsky replaces General Valery Zaluzhny as Ukraine’s new army chief

General Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s new army chief who led the Bakhmut meatgrinder
Russian-born general lauded for defence of Kyiv takes over from Valery Zaluzhny.

General Oleksandr Syrsky
General Oleksandr Syrsky is credited with leading the defence of Kyiv against all odds in the first month of the war and then spearheading a highly successful counter-offensive in northeastern Ukraine.

But the 58-year-old veteran commander must now lead war-torn Ukraine out of months of deadlock against its Russian occupiers.

It was announced on Thursday that he would take over from Valery Zaluzhny as Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, after the latter was given his marching orders by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

A grizzled Soviet-style military chief, Gen Syrsky has commanded Ukraine’s ground forces since 2019, earning himself a reputation as an astute planner with an eye for detail.

He had previously commanded Ukrainian troops fighting against the Moscow-backed insurgency in the eastern Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk some five years earlier.

In February 2015, at the height of fighting against Russian proxies, Gen Syrsky oversaw the withdrawal of some 6,000 Ukrainian troops from Debal’tseve, the last major clash before the Minsk II accord ushered in a fragile peace.

When Russia launched the full-scale invasion almost two years ago, the 58-year-old was put in charge of thwarting the initial push on Kyiv and the surrounding region.

He broke down the Ukrainian capital and the neighbouring towns and villages into sectors, handing the reins to local generals. Officers were given clearance to make their own tactical decisions – a marked step away from Soviet rigidity. And then came the next significant moment in the war in September 2022.

With Russia now focusing on capturing the remainder of the Donbas, Gen Syrsky oversaw a series of probing attacks along the lengthy frontline in the neighbouring Kharkiv region.

A weak spot was eventually found, with Ukraine pouring in troops and armour to break the lines, subsequently liberating swathes of land and pushing Russian forces back over the borders from where they had come some seven months earlier.

While considered hugely successful, the counter-offensive proved to be the first strain in the relationship between Gen Zaluzhny and President Zelensky.

The former commander-in-chief had proposed a push to the Sea of Azov, to cut the land bridge from Russia to occupied Crimea, but the politicians wanted more instantaneous results.

Shortly after the Kharkiv rout, Gen Syrsky was put in charge of his third major campaign of the war – the defence of Bakhmut.

It is here in the salt mining town in Eastern Ukraine where the general started losing favour with his troops. Out went the Nato-styled combined arms manoeuvres as Soviet-style positional warfare returned.

It was a return to Gen Syrsky’s roots as a student at the Moscow Higher Military Command School, a Soviet equivalent of Sandhurst.

He had been born in the Vladimir region of Russia when it was still part of the USSR, versing himself in Soviet warfare, before moving to Ukraine in the 1980s.

In Bakhmut, tens of thousands of men died fighting over the ruined remains of the city, in what is still the bloodiest battle of the invasion.

Many, including Western military planners, had urged Gen Syrsky, and his close ally Mr Zelensky, to withdraw and conserve Ukraine’s forces, but they persisted in defence.

”Bakhmut holds” was the motto but in reality it was a bloodbath for both sides.

When the Telegraph asked a Ukrainian soldier about Gen Syrsky’s appointment as commander-in-chief, they replied simply three ribeye steak emojis.

”For him, it’s victory or death.”

This is not an isolated view, for others acknowledge how damaging the move has been for morale at a time when Ukraine is desperate to find hundreds of thousands of new recruits to defend the country.

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