Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meeting, Oleksandr Syrskyi
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with Oleksandr Syrsky on February 10, 2024. Photo credit: President of Ukraine (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED)

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy takes a gamble on replacing his top general who has a higher popularity rating than he does.

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Ukraine’s president Volodymir Zelenskyy has an overwhelming number of challenges on his plate these days. First, he needs to figure out what to do if right-wing radicals in a Republican-led Congress finally succeed in cutting off American aid. The fact that former President Donald Trump, who openly admires Vladimir Putin, might win re-election next November is even worse news. If that were to happen, Ukraine would be lost. Zelenskyy knows that he may have only a few months to resolve the current stalemate with Moscow or defeat becomes inevitable. 

Closer to home, Zelenskyy has to deal with the possible fallout from the dramatic change at the top of Ukraine’s military command. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, his former top commander, is out. Zaluzhny’s former subordinate, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, is in. While both men are experienced commanders, it is not yet clear how Ukraine’s fighting troops will react to the change at the top. 

“I served under his command,” said Mykhailo, a 25-year-old soldier in Ukraine’s 36th Naval Infantry Brigade, referring to his new commander in chief. “Unlike Zaluzhny, he treats the lives of his men like a mathematical equation, that’s why he’s called ‘the butcher.’”

Ukraine, Mykhailo, Aslan Ocherkhadzhiev

Ukrainian soldier Mykhailo (left) and Aslan Ocherkhadzhiev, a commander of the Chechen battalion Sheikh Mansur. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mykhailo and Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

Aslan Ocherkhadzhiev, a commander of the Chechen battalion Sheikh Mansur, is convinced that at least some of the criticism against Syrsky is based on his refusal to withdraw under fire during the bloody battle for Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, which has been compared to the slaughter at the World War I Battle of Verdun. “He is nicknamed ‘the butcher,’” said Aslan, “simply because he fights to the end, and he asks his soldiers to do the same. He refuses to surrender and he won’t give up even the smallest piece of territory to the Russians.”

A Ukrainian combat medic with Third Assault Brigade, who goes by the call sign “Rabbi,” concurs. “He has a bad reputation among the men,” says Rabbi, “but he was also leading the ground troops during some of the toughest fighting in the war, and war is war. Syrsky may be less delicate than Zaluzhny, but he is a brilliant officer and he is surrounded by a team that is very experienced.”

Rabbi, Ukraine, Soldier

Rabbi. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

There is no question that, given the choice, many Ukrainian soldiers would still prefer to have the popular Zaluzhny, who is widely respected and loved by his men as a commander, but popularity is not always the best recommendation for a general. On the other hand, Zelenskyy’s situation may bear some resemblance to the dilemma that Abraham Lincoln faced during the American Civil War, when Union forces fighting the Confederacy also found themselves locked in a stalemate. The top Union general, George B. McClellan, was extremely popular among his troops, but was overly cautious and failed to make necessary progress. Worse, McClellan had gained so much public recognition that he threatened to become a formidable political competitor to Lincoln in the next election. In the end, Lincoln turned the command over to Ulysses S. Grant, who chose Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to lead the fight. Sherman was less popular than McClellan, but he was a proponent of “total war,” and in the end, he got the job done. 

Until he was replaced, Zaluzhny had as much public recognition as Zelenskyy, and enjoyed even greater popularity. His chief advantage over Syrsky, at least in the public imagination, is that he was born and raised in Ukraine, speaks Ukrainian perfectly, and has only served in the Ukrainian armed forces.

In contrast, Syrsky was born in Russia, where his father was a military officer. Although Syrsky’s wife is Ukrainian, Syrsky’s first involvement with Ukraine began when he was 15, and his father, serving in a Soviet army unit, was posted to Kharkiv. Syrsky graduated from high school in Ukraine, but then left for Moscow, where he attended the Higher Combined Arms Command School. The school is Russia’s answer to West Point. It is the most prestigious military academy in Russia, and its attendees are referred to familiarly as “Moscow cadets.”

After graduation, Syrsky was assigned to a Soviet mobile artillery unit that included self-propelled howitzers capable of firing nuclear weapons. He then served in a Soviet rocket unit in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1993, Syrsky‘s unit was transferred to a Ukrainian command. Syrsky was promoted to the equivalent of a colonel, and put in command of a regiment. 

Syrsky’s potential edge over Zaluzhny, who is eight years younger, is that, having served under fire in the Soviet army, he knows exactly how the Russian military commanders think and how they can be expected to respond to different maneuvers. His specialty has been to organize the Ukrainian army into small, highly mobile tactical units that have proved extremely effective in countering the frontal shock of the Russian army. He is also credited with playing a critical role in the initial defense of Kyiv, and later of Kharkiv. During the latter battle, Syrsky managed to get the Russians to disperse their forces by pretending to attack on multiple fronts, while he concentrated his main forces around Kharkiv.

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Some critics charge that Syrsky sacrificed Ukrainian lives unemotionally when he steadfastly refused to retreat during the Battle of Bakhmut, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. That fight began in 2022 and extended into 2023. Bakhmut, in the eastern breakaway territory of Donetsk, did not have particularly great strategic importance, but it turned into a test of wills between the Ukrainians and the Russians, who went on the offensive. 

It also pitted the Ukrainians against the better-equipped mercenaries of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s infamous Wagner Group. Syrsky later said that the fight was particularly uncomfortable because the Wagner fighters enjoyed killing simply for the sake of killing. To wear down the Ukrainian troops, Prigozhin unleashed sacrificial waves of Russian convicts who had been pressed into service as cannon fodder. Faced with a brutal onslaught, Syrsky was advised to pull out. Instead, he held his ground. The Russians eventually occupied the city, but not before Syrsky’s forces had exacted crippling losses on the Wagner Group as well as Russian support troops. 

Although little was gained strategically by either side, the toll on the Wagner group triggered a falling out between Prigozhin and Russia’s military command. Prigozhin accused the Russian high command of not providing enough support and then sent his forces halfway to Moscow in what looked like an attempted coup d’etat against the Kremlin. He was talked out of confronting the Russian command directly, but for a while the outcome appeared less than certain. After a cooling down period of several weeks, Prigozhin was killed when the aircraft he was flying in was blown up either by a missile or a bomb. The Wagner Group was quietly folded into the conventional Russian military and disappeared from sight. 

If nothing else was gained in Bakhmut, the destruction of Prigozhin’s operation was by itself a major achievement. Faced with a Russian army ready to go to any lengths to take Bakhmut, Syrsky’s calculation was simple: inflict maximum losses on the enemy and hold out as long as possible to prepare for the summer counteroffensive.

Since Syrsky’s ascension to the top command slot, not much has been heard from Zaluzhny, who has apparently slipped into an advisory role. Zaluzhny is still extremely popular, however, and there is speculation that he could eventually run against Zelenskyy in a future presidential election. According to a poll taken by the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology last December, 88 percent of Ukrainians say they trust Zaluzhny, while only 62 percent say they trust Zelenskyy. The figures may be academic since under Ukraine’s current system, elections are out of the question as long as the war continues. 

According to the same poll, 94 percent of the Ukrainians who know who Zaluzhny is say they trust him as a military commander, versus only 5 percent who do not trust him. The figures for Syrsky were less auspicious. Only 63 percent of the people who say they know who he is express trust, and 29 percent express distrust. Those figures may be more of a reflection of how often each man has been in the news rather than a true evaluation of each one’s character. Still, Zelenskyy’s decision to replace Zaluzhny has a disapproval rating ranging from 60 to 70 percent across the board. 

Of course, war is not a popularity contest. Mykhaylo, the soldier in Ukraine’s 36th Naval Infantry Brigade, thinks the change in command may not make that much difference in the end. “What we need the most is ammunition and aid from the West,” he said. “Whether Syrsky or Zaluzhny heads the army is not going to fill our arsenals.” Rabbi agrees, “What this appointment means,” he says, “is that we are really heading into a tough fight.” 

Both Zelenskyy and Syrsky face a situation in which the stakes are high and the only result that really counts is winning. If they do not succeed now, Ukraine’s unified resistance to Putin will very likely disintegrate. It’s a desperate gamble, in which failure is not an option.

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