The general. Alexander Syrski, who was appointed commander of the Ukrainian army On Thursday, he led two successful counteroffensives in the war against Russia before his troops became bogged down in one of the conflict’s most controversial and costly battles.
The eastern city of Bakhmut experienced a prolonged and brutal period of urban fighting last winter, and even as Ukraine was clearly losing ground in the fighting, General Syrsky, then commander of the ground forces , had argued that the decision to defend was reasonable since Russia was losing more soldiers than Ukraine.
Ukraine has maintained what military parlance calls a favorable attrition rate in Bakhmut’s street fighting, but it has failed to win support for the general’s strategy among rank-and-file soldiers. Bakhmut eventually fell, after Ukraine lost thousands of troops in fierce fighting.
The nickname “butcher” attributed to General Syrsky is now widespread in the Ukrainian army.
In the two previous successful battles – in the defense of the capital, kyiv, and in the northern region of Kharkiv – General Syrsky’s soldiers had turned to small-unit tactics and rapid maneuvers to defeat the larger Russian forces. and better armed. But it was his willingness to engage in a war of attrition against Bakhmut, even though the casualty ratio favored Ukraine, that drew criticism from the United States and weighed on the general’s reputation. within the Ukrainian army.
General Syrsky takes command of the army after the strengthening of the front line, while the rapid advance of Ukrainian troops seems a distant prospect, against a backdrop of deep uncertainty over the future of military aid of the country’s most important ally, the United States, and the plan to mobilize more troops to Ukraine has stalled, complicating military planning.
How the general fights the two-year-old war against the Russian invasion will largely be out of his control, and will depend on what Western weapons and new manpower he has at his disposal.
Still, Mykhailo Samus, director of the Ukrainian Army’s Conversion and Disarmament Center, a military research organization in kyiv, said President Volodymyr Zelensky’s nomination to replace General Valery Zalouzhny signaled a focus on ground combat. Ukraine must risk an advance and the cost in lives and equipment, Mr. Samus said, or be forced to negotiate a ceasefire or settlement on unfavorable terms.
When asked if the Pentagon had made contact with Ukraine’s new military leader, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III had not spoken to Gen. Syrsky. “One thing that will not change,” he added, “is our continued support for Ukraine in its efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression.”
General Syrsky, who will take command of Ukrainian forces in Europe’s biggest war since World War II, was educated at an elite military academy in Moscow before the collapse of the Soviet Union – and spent a much of his career fighting the Russians. He knows the tactics of his country’s enemy perfectly.
He began his career in the Soviet Army in 1986; after joining the army of the newly independent Ukraine in 1991, he gradually rose through the ranks of command. Between 2007 and 2014, he held several high-level positions within the General Staff, and after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine a decade ago, he was named deputy commander of the anti-terrorist operation, thus placing him directly in a command position. fight with Russian forces. In 2019, he became head of Ukraine’s ground forces, a position he held until his promotion on Thursday.
Complicating his command is the fact that he is accepting a position vacated by a general well-regarded by the military and society at large, as part of what is widely seen as a politicized shake-up of Ukraine’s military leadership.
Some soldiers and junior commanders in the Ukrainian army view General Syrsky as a relic of an older generation and say his engagement in frontal combat at Bakhmut showed he was pursuing bloody Soviet-style military tactics against an enemy doing the same.
A Ukrainian platoon commander who has fought in the east on and off since 2014, and under General Syrsky since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, said the general had shown little willingness to adapt to new tactics and new technologies. appeared on the battlefield. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But the general has his supporters.
The battle for Bakhmut also cemented his reputation as a strong commander who puts his emotions aside, some say. General Syrsky, said Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s former deputy defense minister, “has extensive combat experience in this war.”
He also worked closely with NATO on programs to modernize the army, starting in 2013. And in the battles to repel the attack on Kiev and eliminate Russian forces from the Kharkiv region, it did not rely on face-to-face infantry warfare, but on army modernization programs. but on the cunning and rapid maneuvers of small units.
General Syrsky commanded troops fighting against Russian forces and their separatist proxies in the eastern Donbass region starting in 2014. He led the Ukrainian retreat there from the town of Debaltseve in 2015, which gave the army a bitter lesson of negotiated ceasefire.
During this battle, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were partly surrounded by Russian forces, who had gotten close enough to the city’s only access road to open fire directly with their tanks. To save the soldiers, Ukraine made political concessions under the Minsk II agreement in exchange for a ceasefire agreement that Russia broke within days.
Rather than surrender, General Syrsky ordered soldiers to retreat at night under fire, and more than a hundred were killed in a harrowing race over agricultural fields to reach the Ukrainian lines.
In the current large-scale war, General Syrsky has shown that he can fight despite the lack of equipment and forces. In kyiv, he commanded lightly armed troops fighting on the outskirts of the city, supported mainly by Ukrainian artillery systems inherited from the Soviet Union.
General Syrsky won the top military post over a man considered his main competitor for the job: the commander of the military intelligence agency, General Kyrylo Budanov, who had overseen a campaign of sabotage and air strikes. drones behind enemy lines and inside Russia.
These operations are asymmetric, seeking to harm Russia using innovative tactics and technologies such as drones that outweigh Moscow’s superior numbers of men and weapons.
“Zelensky has no choice but to take all possible steps that will allow Ukraine to win,” said Mr. Samus, the military analyst. “Basing your military decisions on love of the people is wrong.”
Thomas Gibbons Neff contributed to the report from London, Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine and Helene Cooper of Washington.