Ukrainian Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky photographed during an interview with The Washington Post via Getty Images on June 30, 2022, in eastern Ukraine.
Anastasia Vlasova/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Zelenskyy has replaced his top general, Zaluzhny.Zaluzhny’s replacement, Syrsky, takes the job at a particularly difficult time for Ukraine.Syrsky lacks the popularity of his predecessor, and it is unclear how the shake-up will influence battlefield realities.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has officially replaced his top commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, after rumors and reports that the “Iron General” was on his way out.
Zaluzhny’s successor will be Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, previously commander of Ukraine’s ground forces. He’s taking the job at a challenging time for the Ukrainian armed forces.
Syrsky is famous for leading the defense of Kyiv in the early weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion and the successful Kharkiv counteroffensive in fall 2022. The defense of Kyiv was a shocking upset that surprised many who assumed the capital would fall quickly. For the victory, Syrsky was given the Hero of Ukraine award. But while he has been celebrated for these wins, the general has faced criticisms for expending manpower and resources in the battle of Bakhmut in 2023.
Syrsky is considered to be less popular than his predecessor, whose approval ratings rivaled even Zelenskyy’s among the Ukrainian people, but is recognized as a capable leader.
The decision to replace Zaluzhny, nicknamed “the “Iron General,” at such a perilous time — as Ukraine attempts to maintain a strong defense while running low on ammunition, faces uncertainty over the future of key Western aid, and struggles to recruit new troops — raises questions about Zelenskyy’s strategies going into another year of war and how change in leadership may or may not impact battlefield realities.
Zelenskyy announced the news of the change-up on Thursday, sharing a statement and video across his social media channels. He said he was “grateful” to Zaluzhny for his leadership.
The Ukrainian president said that he appreciates “every victory we have achieved together, thanks to all the Ukrainian warriors who are heroically carrying this war on their shoulders.” Zelenskyy added that they “candidly discussed issues in the army that require change. Urgent change.”
That change appears to be a part of a larger military shake-up, from Zaluzhny to other leadership positions. Zelenskyy said he had “dozens of conversations with commanders at various levels” that are “all being considered for army leadership positions.”
Syrsky, Zelenskyy said in his statement, is “Ukraine’s most experienced commander.”
“He has successful defensive experience, particularly in the Kyiv defense operation,” he said, adding “he also has successful offensive experience, particularly in the Kharkiv liberation operation.”
A Ukrainian soldier of the Khartia brigade fires an AK-47 pellet gun from a trench during a training as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on February 7, 2024.
Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty Images
Syrsky’s appointment is the latest development in a stunning saga between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny, who have reportedly been feuding for months now. The two notably disagreed on whether the battlefield was at a “stalemate” after Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive failed to achieve its stated objectives. One of Zelenskyy’s aides even suggested Zaluzhny’s attitude about the war helped Russia.
Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny also debated strategy over the battle of Bakhmut and disputed mobilization, Western aid, and what’s needed to fight Russia in 2024, not always agreeing on what was necessary. Mobilization in particular has been a sticking point.
Zaluzhny has been quite vocal about shortcomings in both how the West and Ukraine have tackled the war and what should be prioritized going forward and has published multiple op-eds in Western media on the subject.
Zelenskyy has said that the change in leadership is about renewal and a reignition of a spark that has gone out with the revival of the war effort being the primary focus.
He said Thursday that “2024 can become successful for Ukraine only through effective changes in the basis of our defense, which is the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We are all proud of our army and we must do everything in our power to ensure that the Ukrainian army becomes a victorious army.”