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Zelenskyy's new military chief has played key roles in big Ukraine wins, including Kyiv's defense

The man Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has named to lead the country’s military has played a key role in some of Ukraine’s biggest victories in its war with Russia, including overseeing the successful defense of the capital in the early days of the invasion

Samya Kullab
Thursday 08 February 2024 19:35 GMT

The man Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy named Thursday to lead the country's military has played a key role in some of Ukraine's biggest victories in its war with Russia, including overseeing the successful defense of the capital in the early days of the invasion.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrski, who had been commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, takes over the head job at a challenging time. With the war poised to enter its third year, morale is low, the military is facing shortages of ammunition and personnel, and Kyiv is struggling to maintain support from the West.

The choice of Syrski as chief commander is hardly a surprise, as few in the Ukrainian military have the experience and know-how to be able to fill the shoes of his popular predecessor, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Syrski's battlefield successes have earned him the backing of his soldiers, who have been locked in grinding battles for two years.

Syrski, 58, is credited with initially organizing the defense of Kyiv in February 2022, when many in Ukraine still rejected Western warnings that a Russian attack seemed imminent. He was later bestowed with the Hero of Ukraine award, the country’s highest honor, for his role in repelling Moscow’s advance on the capital.

In September 2022, Syrksi was credited with orchestrating the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, which was the most significant Ukrainian victory in the war and enabled Kyiv to retake the cities of Kupiansk and Izium from the Russians.

He has also led the Bakhmut operation, which was the war’s longest and bloodiest and which has been criticized because of the high losses suffered by Ukrainian forces. But the tactic to pin Russian forces in the strategically insignificant salt-mining town also exhausted Russian troops and resources, sapping their ability to forge major breakthroughs elsewhere.

As triumphs turned to attrition on the frontline, Syrksi has had to oversee the most difficult phase of the war, which will enter its third year later this month. Shortages of ammunition and fresh personnel threaten to weaken the Ukrainian lines as Russians eye an advance. Ukrainian forces main goal this winter has been holding the territory it controls, as much-needed U.S. military aid is held up in Congress, jeopardizing Kyiv's military planning.

Syrski was born in 1965 in the Soviet Union. He attended Moscow Higher Military Command School and served in the Soviet Artillery Corps. Observers say his style blends the hierarchical nature inherent to Soviet military strategy with NATO principles of operational flexibility.

Described as an obsessive planner with iron discipline, Syrski was ground commander for operations in eastern Ukraine and played an important role in the 2014 war, when Russia annexed Crimea.

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