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8 Feb, 2024 19:50

Zelensky reveals new commander-in-chief of Ukrainian Army

General Valery Zaluzhny was relieved of duty earlier today
Zelensky reveals new commander-in-chief of Ukrainian Army

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky named General Aleksandr Syrsky as the new head of the armed forces on Thursday, after sacking General Valery Zaluzhny from the post.

The move comes almost a week after Zelensky hinted in an interview with an Italian outlet that he would seek a “reset” of both civilian and military leadership in Kiev to better deal with the ongoing conflict with Russia. 

“I appointed Colonel General Syrsky as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video statement, calling him “the most experienced Ukrainian commander.”

According to Zelensky, Syrsky distinguished himself in the 2022 defense of Kiev and the offensive in Kharkov later that year. 

Announcing Zaluzhny’s dismissal, Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said Ukraine needed “new approaches, new strategies” for 2024, as the fighting would be different to previous years.

The choice of Syrsky appears puzzling in that context, as his reputation is that of a frontline brawler. As head of the AFU Ground Forces, Syrsky has commanded both the defense of Artyomovsk (known in Ukraine as Bakhmut) and the subsequent attempt to retake the city as part of the 2023 summer offensive, which both resulted in decisive defeats and significant casualties.

Prior to that, Syrsky was decorated for commanding the Ukrainian withdrawal from Debaltsevo, a strategic town between Donetsk and Lugansk where Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” almost got encircled again, as it had the summer before at Ilovaysk.

One widespread interpretation of Zaluzhny’s firing was that Zelensky wanted to remove a potential political rival, as Western media have painted the general as competing with the president in popularity. 

Unlike Zaluzhny, who was born in western Ukraine, Syrsky is an ethnic Russian, born in Vladimir Region. The former Soviet artillery officer chose to stay in Ukraine when it declared independence from the USSR in 1991 and enter Kiev’s service instead. 

He is also the only Ukrainian officer in active service with the rank of colonel-general, the three-star equivalent. Though the rank was abolished in October 2020 as part of pro-NATO reforms, Syrsky was allowed to keep it as a legacy.