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Ukraine war: Who is new top commander Oleksandr Syrskyi?

The new head of the Ukrainian military, Oleksandr Syrskyi, studied at a military college in Moscow

The new head of the Ukrainian military, Oleksandr Syrskyi, studied at a military college in Moscow

Oleksandr Syrskyi has been named the new chief of Ukraine's armed forces after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy carried out a long-awaited military reshuffle this week.

Zelenskyy said "urgent changes" were required, as Ukraine was not able to "achieve the goals of our state on the ground."

The Ukrainian president has allegedly had a strained relationship with Syrskyi's predecessor, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, since the failure of Ukraine's 2023 counteroffensive. There have also been persistent rumors that Zaluzhnyi is planning to enter politics and run against Zelenskyy once elections are scheduled in the war-torn country, although the popular general has never publicly voiced any political ambitions.

In naming Syrskyi to the post, Zelenskyy praised the new commander's battlefield experience — both for playing a key role in defending Kyiv in the early stages of the war and in Ukraine's lightning-fast 2022 offensive.

Before his most recent promotion, Syrskyi served as the most senior commander of Ukraine's land forces, the army. He is seen by many as the product of the Soviet military doctrine, which focuses more on objectives and less on protecting soldiers' lives.

Speaking with DW, former British military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge warned that Syrskyi was "less popular with the troops" due to his being "less casualty-averse" than Zaluzhnyi.

Soviet army veteran, defender of Kyiv

Syrskyi was born in 1965 in Russia, not far from Moscow. He attended the Higher Military Command School in the Russian capital in the 1980s and then served another five years in the Soviet army.

As a young officer, he was based in Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He then moved up the ranks of the Ukrainian military, eventually coordinating Kyiv's effort to suppress pro-Russian rebels in 2014.

Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Syrskyi was best known for coordinating an extraction operation in the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve in 2015. Syrskyi established a military group dubbed "Bars" ("Snow Leopard") to provide cover for evacuating soldiers. He received a medal and a promotion over his role in the operation, as well as inheriting the call sign "Bars." In 2019, he became the head of Ukraine's land forces.

After the start of the Russian invasion, Syrskyi was one of the main architects of Kyiv's defense against the Russian troops. On his recommendation, Ukrainian forces established a two-tier defense around the city, and destroyed bridges and a local dam.

This series of measures, according to many analysts, made it exceedingly difficult for the attackers to advance. Russian troops failed to reach Kyiv and were eventually forced to retreat. In April 2022, Syrskyi was awarded the title "Hero of Ukraine" by Zelenskyy.

Led successful counteroffensives in Kharkiv, Kherson

The colonel general was involved in Ukraine's successful counteroffensives on Kharkiv and Kherson, which saw Ukraine quickly regain control of vast swaths of its territory. In autumn 2022 and spring 2023, Syrskyi was also in charge of defending Soledar and Bakhmut, which Ukrainian forces were finally forced to give up after long and deadly battles.

Some military analysts have wondered if the defense of Bakhmut was worth the losses suffered by the Ukrainian troops, but Syrskyi insisted that holding onto the city degraded Russia's military power by weakening the Wagner mercenary group.

Speaking with Ukrainian media in December 2022, Syrskyi stressed that the Ukraine military operated in a completely different way than Soviet or even the modern Russian army.

"We see that people are cannon fodder to them," he told Ukrainian broadcaster 1+1. "We have a whole different approach. To us, the people are the highest value. And not forgetting the troops — you have to go out, talk, meet the commanders, servicemen, sergeants, soldiers. Then you can understand what is happening there, how people live, which problems they have."

What will change under Syrskyi?

At the moment, Ukrainian troops find themselves hard-pressed by Russian attacks at various points of the front line, most notably in Avdiivka, near Donetsk. The promotion of Syrskyi to the top job could be a "major strategic change" for Ukraine, especially in view of differences between Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi on acceptable losses, ex-military intelligence officer Ledwidge told DW.

"I have no doubt at all that [Syrskyi] is recommending right now, as we speak, that the Ukrainians hold on as long as they can in Avdiivka, regardless of the cost, just as he did during the Bakhmut campaign, which was, in my view, and in view of many others, probably a major error," said Ledwidge.

Separately, military expert Nico Lange told German public broadcaster ZDF that Syrskyi was more likely to focus on sustainable defense.

"I believe General Syrskyi to 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 with defense considering the pressure that Ukraine is facing in the east," said Lange.

Edited by: Timothy Jones