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Oleksandr Syrskyi: The battle-hardened ‘snow leopard’ leading Ukraine’s army from the front

The Moscow-educated general sleeps four-and-a-half hours a night and regularaly visits troops on the frontline

Reuters
Olena Harmash and Yuliia Dysa
Friday 09 February 2024 11:18 GMT
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Zelenskyy tells Ukraine's top general it's time for someone new to lead the army

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has shaken up his top military brass, replacing army chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi with Oleksandr Syrskyi.

Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said separately that the decision had been taken to change the military leadership.

The statements follow days of speculation that Zelenskiy was considering dismissing his popular army chief, who is seen by many Ukrainians as a national hero for overseeing the war effort since February 2022.

Zelenskiy said in his statement he had met with Zaluzhnyi.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who has led Ukraine’s ground forces since 2019, was promoted to commander of the armed forces on Thursday as the war with Russia nears its third year.

Senior Russian security official Dmitry Medvedev on Friday said Ukraine’s new Russian-born army chief was a traitor, while the Kremlin said the appointment would not alter the outcome of what Russia calls its special military operation in Ukraine.

Zelenskiy said in his statement he had met with Zaluzhnyi (REUTERS)

Here are some facts about Syrskyi, already a key Ukrainian figure throughout Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Early years

Syrskyi was born in July 1965 in Russia’s Vladimir region, which was then part of the Soviet Union. He has lived in Ukraine since the 1980s. Like many people of his age in Ukraine’s armed forces, he studied in Moscow - at the Higher Military Command School - among peers who have since become Russian commanders, graduating in 1986 and serving for five years in the Soviet Artillery Corps. Some military analysts believe his battlefield tactics reflect his hierarchical Soviet training.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy listens a report of Commander of the Ground Forces colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi (via REUTERS)

Snow Leopard

Syrskyi became head of Ukraine’s land forces in 2019. He had previously commanded Ukrainian troops fighting a Moscow-backed insurgency in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions that began in 2014, and was given the call sign “Snow leopard”.

His biggest victories

Some of Ukraine’s biggest victories of Russia’s full-scale invasion were overseen by Syrskyi. He led the successful defence of the capital Kyiv in the early months and was named a Hero of Ukraine, the country’s highest honour, in April 2022. In July 2022, Syrskyi planned and executed a lightning counteroffensive that pushed Russian troops away from the city of Kharkiv and retook swathes of land to the east and southeast.

Zelensky and Syrskyi (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

Bakhmut

Early last year, Syrskyi led Ukraine’s defence of the eastern city of Bakhmut, where thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed in one of the bloodiest battles of the war so far. Some military analysts questioned whether fighting for a ruined city was worth so many dead and wounded. Syrskyi said Ukraine’s dogged defence of Bakhmut had damaged Russia’s overall war effort by tying down the Wagner mercenary group.

A Ukrainian serviceman installs an electronic warfare system to quell Russian drones at the front line, near Bakhmut (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Troops

Syrskyi says his priority is the morale of his troops, whom he is regularly pictured visiting at the front. He has told Western media that he sleeps four-and-a-half hours a night and relaxes by going to the gym. Syrskyi is married and has two sons.

What next?

The move ends intense speculation over his fate after reported frictions between him and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose authority will be tested as he seeks to rally troops under a new army chief and change the dynamic of the war.

Ukrainian forces are struggling after a counteroffensive launched last June made little headway in the south and east, while Russian forces are inflicting small but costly defeats at several points along the 1,000-km (620-mile)front.

Western military and financial support is no longer guaranteed, leaving Kyiv more exposed to attacks by Russian drones and missiles that are sapping Ukrainian resources.

Given Zaluznhyi’s popularity and proven ability as an inspiring commander, the fact that Zelenskiy is replacing him may reflect the desire for a new approach on the battlefield.

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