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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Shaun Walker in Kyiv and Pjotr Sauer

Ukraine needs fresh approach on battlefield, says new top general

Oleksandr Syrskyi (second from right) at an awarding ceremony in Kyiv on Friday.
Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi (second from right) at an awarding ceremony in Kyiv on Friday. Photograph: Ukraine Presidential Press Service/EPA

Ukraine’s newly appointed top general has said a new approach is required to achieve success on the battlefield, in his first public comments since taking command as armed forces chief.

“Only changes and constant improvement of the means and methods of warfare will make it possible to achieve success on this path,” said Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, singling out drones and electronic warfare as examples of new technology that he said would help Ukraine achieve victory.

Syrskyi was appointed to the top job by the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Thursday in a controversial shake-up that marks the biggest military reshuffle since Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

Syrskyi has replaced Valerii Zaluzhnyi, a popular commander whose relations with Zelenskiy had become strained in recent months. Critics have suggested Zelenskiy may have been partly motivated by concerns over Zaluzhnyi’s high approval ratings in Ukrainian society and his potential to one day become a political challenger.

Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi  embrace
Syrskyi and Zaluzhnyi (right) embrace in Kyiv on Friday. Photograph: Ukraine Presidential Press Service/EPA

Changes at the top of the army have been the main topic of conversation in Ukraine since last Monday, when news leaked that Zelenskiy had asked Zaluzhnyi to resign and he had declined.

Borislav Bereza, a former opposition MP who was one of the first to leak news of the initial meeting, said Zelenskiy’s team had subsequently made several attempts to persuade Zaluzhnyi to resign voluntarily, but he had rejected all of them. However, he said the general understood the need for wartime unity so did not want to rock the boat too much.

“Zaluzhnyi is a person oriented on the needs of the state, he understands that if he says: ‘I’m leaving but I’ll be coming back,’ it would bring dissonance into Ukrainian society,” said Bereza.

In a show of unity on Friday, Zelenskiy awarded Zaluzhnyi the Hero of Ukraine award, the country’s highest honour.

The defence minister, Rustem Umerov, said he had introduced Syrskyi to the general staff. “Defence is in good hands,” he wrote on Facebook.

The change in commanders comes as Ukraine’s forces face their toughest period since the opening weeks of the war, contending with a failure to retake significant territory since late 2022, Russia on the attack around the city of Avdiivka and other parts of the frontline, and a delay in funding from the US that has added to ammunition shortages. Zelenskiy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak said in an interview this week that Russia was firing up to 10,000 shells a day while Ukraine was able to fire only 1,500 – to 2,500.

Some of the concern about Syrskyi among the rank and file is over his reputation as a “Soviet-style” general who has little regard for the lives of his troops. Formerly commander of the land forces, Syrskyi is credited with masterminding the defence of Kyiv in the beginning of the war and the successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv region in late 2022, but has also been criticised for fighting on in the ultimately failed defence of Bakhmut at the cost of many lives.

Perhaps to address this criticism, Syrskyi in his statement on Friday said: “The life and health of servicemen have always been and are the main value of the Ukrainian army.”

Syrskyi was born in Russia’s Vladimir region, then part of the Soviet Union, and attended the Moscow high military command school before moving to Ukraine in the 1980s. His close family still lives in Russia. “I’m not in touch with him, I don’t even know where he is. I don’t know anything about him,” his brother Oleg told the Russian state news agency Ria hours after Syrskyi’s appointment was made public.

On Odnoklassniki, a popular Russian social network, Oleg and Syrskyi’s 82-year-old mother, Lyudmila, appeared to have frequently “liked” posts that back Russia’s invasion.

Zelenskiy’s office has portrayed Syrskyi as someone who could offer a new approach on the battlefield, though it has not provided specifics. “In 2023 there were particular expectations and we did not meet them. Now it’s 2024, it can’t just be a year that we sit and wait for something to happen in Russia. We need direct answers to real questions … because right now we are in stagnation,” Podolyak said this week.

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