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Ukraine trades ‘Iron General’ for the ‘Butcher’

Feb 9

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The “Iron General” is out. The “Butcher” is in. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in his nightly address to the country on Thursday, Feb. 8, it was time for Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi to step aside. Zaluzhnyi had been leading Ukraine’s Armed Forces since before Russia invaded.

Zelenskyy gave the departing general the Hero of Ukraine award after his dismissal, the nation’s highest honor. Zelenskyy said the two talked openly about the urgent changes needed in Ukraine’s military leadership and battlefield strategies.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi is now leading Ukraine’s military, and he’s taking over at a challenging time. Ukrainian troops are mostly in defensive positions along the frontlines, trying to hold back Russian assaults that are draining supplies, morale and troop numbers. The lack of ammunition and fresh troops could be disastrous for Ukrainian lines that are stretched thin.

Meanwhile — on the other side of the trenches and Ukrainian minefields — Russian forces are eyeing more advances. The primary goal for Ukrainian forces this winter is to hold the territory it controls and hope the much-needed U.S. military aid is approved by Congress, all without further jeopardizing Kyiv’s military planning.

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise the 58-year-old Syrskyi was named as Zaluzhnyi’s successor. Few in Ukraine’s military have the same level of background and experience. He was born in the Soviet Union, attended Moscow Higher Military Command School and served in the Soviet Artillery Corps. Observers said “his style blends the hierarchical nature inherent to Soviet military strategy with NATO principles of operational flexibility.”

Before he was named leader of the armed forces, Syrskyi commanded Ukraine’s ground forces. He commanded troops during Russia’s initial invasion into eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region back in 2014.

Syrskyi led the defense of Kyiv in the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion, when Moscow said it could take the capitol in just three days. His actions there earned him the Hero of Ukraine award as well. Syrskyi also led the successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in 2022.

However, Syrskyi earned the nickname the “Butcher” for his decisions surrounding the defense of Bakhmut. Some soldiers and officers in the Ukrainian military said the general relied too heavily on Soviet tactics like meat wave attacks, and that he sacrificed too many Ukrainian lives in defense of a strategically unimportant region.

Supporters said the decision to defend Bakhmut so vigorously sapped Russian supplies and manpower to the point Moscow couldn’t afford to launch large-scale attacks elsewhere.

Reactions to the decision to replace Zaluzhnyi with Syrskyi are mixed in Ukraine. Some acknowledge it may be time for a different perspective and new energy as the war is set to enter its third year. Others question whether the change in leadership will further erode Western support at a time when Ukraine needs it most.

The Kyiv Independent reported it’s possible Zaluzhnyi himself recommended Syrskyi as his replacement, but some soldiers told the outlet if the new military leader repeats the same tactics he used in Bakhmut, they’re in a bad spot.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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[RYAN ROBERTSON]

THE IRON GENERAL IS OUT. THE BUTCHER IS IN. UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY SAYS IT’S TIME FOR GENERAL VALERIY ZALUZHNYI TO STEP ASIDE. ZALUZHNYI HAS BEEN LEADING UKRAINE’S ARMED FORCES SINCE BEFORE RUSSIA INVADED.
ZELENSKYY GAVE THE DEPARTING GENERAL THE HERO OF UKRAINE AWARD AFTER HIS DISMISSAL, AND SAID THE TWO TALKED OPENLY ABOUT THE URGENT CHANGES NEEDED IN UKRAINE’S ARMED FORCES.
COLONEL GENERAL OLEKSANDR SYRSKYI IS NOW LEADING UKRAINE’S MILITARY, AND TAKES OVER AT A CHALLENGING TIME. UKRAINIAN TROOPS ARE MOSTLY IN DEFENSIVE POSITIONS ALONG THE FRONTLINES, TRYING TO HOLD BACK RUSSIAN ASSAULTS THAT ARE DRAINING SUPPLIES, MORALE, AND TROOP NUMBERS.
BEFORE HE WAS NAMED LEADER OF THE MILITARY, SYRSKYI COMMANDED UKRAINE’S GROUND FORCES. HE LED THE DEFENSE OF KYIV IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE RUSSIAN INVASION, WHEN MOSCOW SAID IT COULD TAKE THE CAPITOL IN JUST THREE DAYS. HIS ACTIONS THERE EARNED HIM THE HERO OF UKRAINE AWARED AS WELL. SYRSKYI ALSO LED THE SUCCESSFUL COUNTEROFFENSIVE IN THE KHARKIV REGION IN 2022.
HE EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BUTCHER,” HOWEVER, FOR HIS DECISIONS SURROUNDING THE DEFENSE OF BAKHMUT. SOME SOLDIERS AND OFFICERS IN THE UKRAINIAN MILITARY SAID THE GENERAL RELIED TOO HEAVILY ON SOVIET TACTICS LIKE MEAT WAVE ATTACKS, AND THAT HE SACRIFICED TOO MANY UKRAINIAN LIVES IN DEFENSE OF A STRATEGICALLY UNIMPORTANT REGION.
SUPPORTERS SAY THE DECISION TO DEFEND BAKHMUT SO VIGOROUSLY SAPPED RUSSIAN SUPPLIES AND MANPOWER TO THE POINT MOSCOW COULDN’T AFFORD TO LAUNCH LARGE-SCALE ATTACKS ELSEWHERE.
REACTION TO THE DECISION TO REPLACE ZALUZHNYI WITH SYRSKYI IS MIXED IN UKRAINE. SOME ACKNOWLEDGE IT MAY BE TIME FOR A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE AND NEW ENERGY AS THE WAR IS SET TO ENTER ITS THIRD YEAR. OTHERS QUESTION WHETHER THE CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP WILL FURTHER ERODE WESTERN SUPPORT AT A TIME WHEN UKRAINE NEEDS IT MOST.
THE KYIV INDEPENDENT REPORTED IT’S POSSIBLE ZALUZHNYI HIMSELF RECOMMENDED SYRSKYI AS HIS REPLACEMENT, BUT SOME SOLDIERS TOLD THE OUTLET IF THE NEW MILITARY LEADER REPEATS THE SAME TACTICS HE USED IN BAKHMUT THEY’RE–AND I’M PARAPHRASING HERE–IN A BAD SPOT.