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14 Feb, 2024 21:11

A very Soviet union: Why has Zelensky picked a Russian general as the new leader of Ukraine’s army?

Kiev’s new Commander-in-Chief was born and raised in Russia, where his family still live
A very Soviet union: Why has Zelensky picked a Russian general as the new leader of Ukraine’s army?

A change in Ukraine’s military leadership – anticipated for several months – has finally happened. As a result of a long simmering personal conflict between Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and the former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny, the latter has been replaced by Alexander Syrsky.

He's an experienced military commander with a long track record, but a controversial background. Syrsky was born in Russia, and comes from a family of patriots.

Russian patriots. 

Even the military decisions made by Syrsky over the course of his career raise many doubts about whether the commander – who has earned the nicknames “butcher” and “General-200” (200 being the military code for soldier's corpses) is really the best man for the job. However, as experts note, Syrsky is a convenient option for Zelensky since he is not a political rival of the Ukrainian president.  

A Russian native in Ukraine’s military leadership 

Tensions between Zelensky and Zaluzhny had flared up because of the Ukrainian army’s failures at the front. The president and the commander-in-chief blamed each other for last year's failed summer counteroffensive. While initially there were only rumors about a disagreement, later the situation became public.

By the end of January, the Ukrainian media was actively discussing Zaluzhny’s imminent dismissal. While such plans were officially denied by the authorities, the press didn’t stop talking about Zelensky’s intentions to fire the top general. Western media also covered the story. 

Zelensky himself only confirmed the plans to replace Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief on February 5, in an interview with RAI Italia. Commenting on the decision, he said that “a reset” was necessary because of evident “stagnation.”

Three days later, the identity of the new Commander-in-Chief – who would “inherit” all the challenges which had initially caused the conflict between Ukraine’s military and political leadership – became known.  Zelensky appointed Colonel-General Alexander Syrsky, who had previously commanded the ground forces, as the new commander-in-chief of the AFU. 

Syrsky is a controversial figure and his biography has given rise to many discussions among ordinary Ukrainians.

Born on July 26, 1965 in Novinki, a village located less than 90 miles east of Moscow in Vladimir Region, his military career also started in Russia: in 1982, he entered the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School.  

In 1986, he was sent to serve in the Ukrainian SSR. There, he served as the commander of the motorized rifle platoon of the First Combined Arms Army’s 25th Division, 426th Regiment.  After the collapse of the USSR, Syrsky became a Ukrainian citizen. 

It took the soldier several decades to be promoted to Colonel-General. In 1993, he was the commander of the motorized rifle battalion of the 6th Division of the National Guard of Ukraine. Two years later, he became Regiment Commander. In 2000-2002, he served as Chief of Staff and First Deputy Commander of the 72nd Separate Mechanized Division of the AFU, stationed in the city of Belaya Tserkov, in the Kiev region. Later, this unit became a brigade, and Syrsky headed it as Major General.

RT

In parallel, Syrsky continued his military training. In 1996, he graduated with honors from the Academy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, where he studied operational and tactical planning. Nine years later, he graduated from the National Defense University of Ukraine, where he studied strategic military management. After that, he was appointed First Deputy Commander of the Joint Operational Command of the AFU. In 2011-2012, he served as the First Deputy Head of the Ukrainian General Staff’s Main Directorate of Military Cooperation and Peacekeeping Operations. A year later, he became the First Deputy Chief of the AFU’s Main Command Center. 

As First Deputy Chief, he oversaw cooperation with NATO and represented Ukraine during negotiations on bringing Ukraine’s army in line with NATO standards. He was engaged in these activities during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

A family of Russian patriots 

Syrsky’s family lives in Russia to this day. His father is retired from the military, his mother sings in a choir and enjoys gardening, and his brother works as a security guard. 

His 82-year-old mother, Lyudmila Syrsky, is active on social media and often ‘likes’ posts such as the late Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s quotes about Ukraine, those wishing Russian President Vladimir Putin well, and comments making fun of the current laws in Ukraine. 

Lyudmila Syrsky has advised young Russians to defend the interests of their homeland in the conflict zone. “Go defend Russia,” she said in a video posted by Ruptly on Telegram.

She also honors the memory of Syrsky’s grandfather, who fought in the Soviet army during WWII and died near Leningrad in 1941, and attends the Immortal Regiment marches held during Victory Day celebrations each year. 

Syrsky’s father has responded to questions posed by journalists in a restrained manner. When asked how he felt about his son’s appointment, he replied: “I felt about it the same way as you did, nothing more.”

He also said that he does not know his son’s methods of working with the Ukrainian army. “I am not involved,” he said in a video posted by Ruptly.

According to the Readovka news portal, the Ukrainian military commander broke ties with his family because of their patriotism and support of Russia. However, this information has not been verified. For example, the news site Mash has published a video where a neighbor of Syrsky’s parents said that the general still regularly talks to his mother and father via video chat. Moreover, she says that the commander himself isn’t satisfied with the army. According to her, during Syrsky’s last visit to his parents (the date of which is not known), he told his mother that he can’t stand the Ukrainians in the army headquarters “because they are cunning and sneaky.”

The Commander-in-Chief’s brother Oleg told TASS that he hasn’t been in touch with his sibling for many years. “I don’t communicate with him, I don’t even know where he is. <...> I don’t know anything about him. A long time ago, a very long time ago, he went there [to Ukraine]. He’s lived there his entire life, he started serving [in the army] there and continues to do so, he has a family there,” he said.

According to media reports, the situation with Syrsky’s wife and children is also quite ‘dramatic’. In a popular video recorded in 2021, Syrsky’s stepson, Anton, who now lives in Australia, talked about his stepfather’s private life. According to Anton Syrsky, his stepfather left the family. In 2014, after the start of the conflict in Donbass, the commander’s family tried to dissuade him from fighting in the then-breakaway region, but he simply said, “That’s politics, that’s the way it is.” Soon after that, they broke off ties with Syrsky. 

According to Anton Syrsky, during the time when the general cooperated with NATO, he had an affair with a translator and left the family. Currently, the Commander-in-Chief’s biography is kept secret. According to Anton Syrsky, his stepfather stopped communicating with all the people he used to know.  In online sources, only Syrsky’s new Ukrainian wife and two children are mentioned, although he also has a son, Ivan Syrsky, who considers himself Russian. 

“I went to Australia with my new stepfather and I don’t keep in touch with Syrsky. My younger brother, who is his biological son, also doesn’t talk to him,” said Anton Syrsky. 

Syrsky’s stepson says that his stepfather was always career-minded and liked money. “He has three university degrees, and graduated with honors each time. The press called him Ukraine’s best military commander. But essentially, he is career-minded. He used his brains, he didn’t take bribes. That’s why he didn’t become a minister, although he definitely could have been one,” he said.

According to Anton, his stepfather used to be his role model, but things changed when Syrsky betrayed his Russian origins for the sake of a career in the AFU. However, Anton noted that Syrsky is “an absolutely Russian person.”

“I come from a military family, and it pains me that generals like Syrsky, who clearly understand what’s going on in Donbass … do all this [nonsense] and send the AFU to fight there. But they are concerned only with their career. As they say, money doesn’t stink. I used to consider him almost an ideal person – a very smart man and a good officer. When all this started, we tried to talk. He is not one of those people who’ve been brainwashed. But he simply said, ‘That’s politics, that’s the way it is’. Well, f**k you, if that’s the way it is, you scoundrel,” Anton Syrsky said. 

“General 200”

In addition to the controversy around Syrsky’s family, the commander’s military decisions have also raised concerns about whether he is the best man for the job. 

In military circles, Syrsky has several nicknames – “General 200” (200 being the military code for soldier’s corpses), “butcher”, and “cannibal”. He got all these nicknames as a result of his willingness to sacrifice people for the sake of achieving results on the battlefield. For example, he ​​ordered massive infantry attacks on the positions of the Russian Armed Forces, which led to huge losses for the AFU. 

In July 2022, Syrsky was in charge of the operation in the Kharkov region. In September, he was responsible for the counteroffensive in that area. Later, he was appointed Commander of the AFU in Artemovsk (Bakhmut) which is where he received the nickname “butcher.” As Politico wrote, he was responsible for leading the Ukrainian troops into the Artemovsk “meat grinder.” 

During the 2023 counteroffensive, Syrsky insisted on strengthening the AFU’s defense near Kupyansk, where Russian troops had made significant progress. He believed that the northeast region was more important for the AFU than the south, but eventually the Ukrainian army dispersed its forces to the east and south.

RT

Syrsky is also associated with battles in Debaltsevo, which occurred at the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbass. In 2015, member of the AFU were encircled in the so-called “Debaltsevo cauldron,” where many Ukrainian soldiers died. For this operation, Syrsky received the Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, 3rd class. 

In his first statement after being appointed Commander-in-Chief, Syrsky said that the life and health of Ukrainian servicemen “have always been and will always remain the main priority of the Ukrainian army.”

“Therefore, maintaining balance between carrying out combat missions and restoring units and subunits [to desired combat capability], and intensifying the training of personnel remains more relevant than ever,” he said.

He also noted that the AFU’s agenda includes “new tasks” including building “a clear and detailed action plan for the military authorities” which would take into account the weapons supplied from abroad and “the fast and rational distribution and delivery of everything that the combat units may need.” 

Ukraine’s political leadership expects victories on the battleground and is even pressuring Syrsky to develop a new strategy that would reverse stagnation at the front, CNN reports.

Not a rival for Zelensky 

Zelensky chose Syrsky because he doesn’t see him as a political rival, Vladimir Oleinik, a member of the “Other Ukraine” political movement, and a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada, told RT. According to Oleinik, Zelensky and Zaluzhny held radically different views and simply could not come to an agreement. 

“Zelensky didn’t want to spare the soldiers, he only wanted to control territories, since otherwise they (Ukraine’s Western partners — RT) would give less money. As a military man, Zaluzhny proceeded from the situation at the front– for example, in some cases, it was necessary to retreat in order to incur fewer losses –  since if Ukraine loses its army, it will lose everything. Clearly, in this conflict, people saw that Zaluzhny was being more sensible. So Zaluzhny became a rival [for Zelensky] in the future elections,” Oleinik said.

In December 2023, the online news portal “Strana.ua”published the results of a poll by Rating Sociological Group. According to the survey, Zaluzhny’s approval rating was 82% while Zelensky’s was 72% (63% of Ukrainians “completely trust” Zaluzhny, and 19% “mostly trust” him, while the numbers for Zelensky are 39% and 33%, respectively.)

As Oleinik notes, in order to retain power, especially in light of the growing support Zaluzhny has received from oligarchs and politicians, Zelensky opted for a “safer” candidate for the post of Commander-in-Chief. The choice fell on Syrsky since he didn’t pose a threat to Zelensky’s presidency. 

“Today, Zelensky’s main goal is to keep the situation under control until the presidential elections in the US. If the same thing happens in Ukraine as in Afghanistan, [US President Joe] Biden doesn’t have any chance of winning the elections. It is not a coincidence that on the exact day when Syrsky was appointed Commander-in-Chief, he addressed the Cabinet of Ministers and proposed to extend the operation hours of military enlistment offices, so they would work 24 hours a day. We saw how people were caught [on the street and drafted into the army] during the day, now this will happen at night as well. All this corresponds to the US concept and to Zelensky’s plan. In other words, people are not dying for their country, they’re dying for Biden and Zelensky. Society has also realized that [Syrsky] is ‘General death’. The discussion in Ukraine continues. They are in their death throes.” Oleinik added.

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