Ukraine’s newly ousted military leader was awarded the country’s highest honor Friday as his removal after weeks of speculation raised new questions about its fight against Russia — and about the man chosen to replace him.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to dismiss widely admired Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and replace him with a commander viewed less auspiciously has fueled unease in Kyiv and left many observers of the war unsure about whether the shake-up can turn around the country’s fortunes as Russia regains the initiative on the battlefield.
But the new commander-in-chief, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, may have little power to solve the larger issues looming over the military he now leads: a dire shortage of soldiers and ammunition, after months of internal wrangling over the need for mass mobilization and delays in new military aid from Ukraine’s Western backers.
Ukrainian social media has been awash with tributes to Zaluzhnyi, who won the nation’s acclaim for his leadership throughout the nearly two-year fight against Russia. Zelenskyy handed him the Hero of Ukraine award and a hearty parting hug in a ceremony on Friday, putting aside the well-publicized disagreements that saw him fired.
On the streets of Kyiv, the change fueled some apprehension.
Alisa Riazantseva, 35, told The Associated Press that she had been “generally satisfied” with Zaluzhnyi and hoped that the "government has not made a big mistake” by replacing him.
The opinion on Syrskyi appears to be split, however, with some Western military analysts questioning whether he’s the right man to lead an army suffering from waning internal morale and outside aid.
The 58-year-old general has been in command of Ukraine’s ground forces and appeared a natural choice for the promotion.
He is not very outspoken and is known for regularly visiting his troops on the front lines. Syrskyi was born in Russia and studied at the Moscow military command school during the Soviet era. But he has spent most of his life in Ukraine and has held positions in the Ukrainian army since the early ‘90s.
Zelenskyy called him Ukraine’s “most experienced” commander and praised his role in some of its biggest victories, including the defense of the capital, Kyiv, in the early weeks of the war, and the offensive that later liberated large swaths of the eastern Kharkiv region.
But the Ukrainian president did not mention Syrskyi’s leadership in Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine’s east that Moscow seized in May after a monthslong battle of attrition. Many military observers called into question the human cost of Ukraine defending a city that carried little strategic value in an apparent effort to exhaust Russian forces.
“He’s viewed as more of an old Soviet-style officer,” Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said of Syrskyi and his tactics. “Sort of a tough fighter but one who suffers high casualties. He’s basically not viewed as sort of a new, modern Ukrainian officer,” he told NBC News.
Zelenskyy clearly wants someone who is more upbeat about Ukraine’s prospects and less defensively minded than he thinks Zaluzhnyi was, said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.
Zaluzhnyi appeared to have caught Zelenskyy off guard last year when he called the situation on the battlefield a “stalemate” — a sobering assessment that did not sit well with the Ukrainian president at the time.
“Whether he is right from a military perspective, we don’t know, but he has the right to make that call,” Clarke said. “And Zaluzhnyi’s popularity with the forces is not really relevant,” he added. “Many generals who fail to achieve their wider objectives are nevertheless popular with their troops, if they seem to look after them. Sometimes, winning commanders are not very popular.”
For his part, Syrskyi said that “new tasks are on the agenda.”
“Only changes and constant improvement of the means and methods of warfare will make it possible to achieve success on this path,” he said on Telegram, in his first statement since assuming the top job.
The Kremlin dismissed Syrskyi’s appointment Friday, saying it would do nothing to change the course of the war.
The White House signaled Thursday it was ready to work with whomever Zelenskyy puts in charge of his military, as it seeks to finally push a new aid package through Congress.
While the installment of Syrskyi is a significant overhaul of the country’s military leadership, analysts said such changes are par for the course in protracted wars.
Ultimately, no one commander can make the difference between winning and losing for Ukraine, O’Brien said, and the issues that Kyiv faces right now — with manpower and weaponry running low — are not ones that can be solved by exceptional generalship.
“It’s not like a brilliant commander is going to find a way to make up for drones and landmines and all of that right now,” he added, speaking of Russia’s heavily fortified defenses. “So it’s more a case of, I think, preparing Ukrainian forces for a stage that comes after it and saving their numbers now.”