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Zelensky told Zaluzhny 10 days ago that he was being dismissed, but the president’s office initially denied that the commander in chief had been fired. Then, Zelensky delayed in issuing a formal order or announcing a successor and, even after elevating Syrsky on Thursday, the president did not give an explanation, saying only that change was needed.
But it’s unclear what change Syrsky will — or can — usher in. Zelensky considered Zaluzhny’s plans for this year too ambitious considering Ukraine’s limited resources, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking. For the past two years, however, Syrsky has essentially functioned as the military’s second-in-command. And while Ukraine is expected to focus more on defense this year rather than attempt another sweeping counteroffensive, it is still confronting a better-armed and larger Russian force.
As ground forces commander, Syrsky, 58, was credited with leading the defense of Kyiv in the first month of the war and then orchestrating a successful counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region in fall 2022.
In a statement, Zelensky praised his new commander and cited those successes.
“He has successful defensive experience, particularly in the Kyiv defense operation,” the president said. “He also has successful offensive experience, particularly in the Kharkiv liberation operation. … 2024 can become successful for Ukraine only through effective changes in the basis of our defense, which is the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
The decision to name Syrsky as commander in chief, however, is expected to cause backlash among troops in the field. Among rank-and-file soldiers, Syrsky is especially disliked, considered by many to be a Soviet-style commander who kept forces under fire far too long in the eastern city of Bakhmut, which eventually fell to Russian control. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were killed and many more were wounded defending the city, which had limited strategic value.
Some Ukrainian soldiers refer to Syrsky as a “butcher.”
“I only know what I’ve heard from my subordinates,” said a high-ranking military official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so publicly. “One hundred percent of them don’t respect him because they don’t think he counts soldiers’ lives.”
“In comparison with Zaluzhny, he gets much lower support,” the person added.
Relations between Zelensky and Zaluzhny had frayed for months, in part because of a failed counteroffensive last year that failed to achieve any significant territorial gains and more recently because of a disagreement over how many soldiers Ukraine must mobilize as reinforcements this year. Zelensky also viewed Zaluzhny as a possible political rival and threat because of his high popularity ratings, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said.
Zelensky had publicly contradicted Zaluzhny for saying in the fall that the war had become a “stalemate” — though that assessment is now widely regarded as fact among military analysts. And while Zaluzhny has pushed for mobilizing nearly 500,000 new troops, Zelensky has resisted that high number, publicly and privately, saying he is not yet convinced that it is necessary and raising questions about whether Ukraine can afford to pay for the new soldiers.
One soldier said that firing Zaluzhny, widely beloved in Ukraine by both troops and civilians, is likely to further dissuade people from volunteering to fight.
Zelensky said other commanders are being considered for promotions, as several generals are expected to be removed along with Zaluzhny. Zelensky said he had asked Zaluzhny to remain as part “of the team of the Ukrainian state of the future.” It is unclear what role Zaluzhny will have going forward.
Zaluzhny, 50, was offered Ukraine’s ambassadorship to Britain, two people familiar with the matter said, but declined because it is a civilian post. Zaluzhny, a career soldier, cannot retire from the military while Ukraine is under martial law, one of the people said.
In posts on both Zelensky’s and Zaluzhny’s social media accounts, the two men posed shaking hands and smiling. “A decision was made about the need to change approaches and strategy,” Zaluzhny wrote.
Zelensky’s post said that he “thanked” Zaluzhny for “two years of protecting Ukraine.” He added that in their meeting Thursday, they discussed “updated leadership” for Ukraine’s military.
“The time for such an update is now,” Zelensky wrote.
But many troops on the front line felt unsatisfied with Zelensky’s explanation for Zaluzhny’s sacking.
“It has been a very, very sharp negative reaction to his dismissal, because, as it seems to us, there were no real reasons for the dismissal,” said a Ukrainian officer fighting in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region. “But this will really hit motivation, of course, really hit. Unequivocally. There’s less and less motivation all the time. People work and fight increasingly like automatons, [rather] than on motivation. This will be reflected in the effectiveness.”
It’s unclear how Syrsky’s appointment will help improve what has become an increasingly perilous situation for Ukraine on the battlefield.
Russia has regained the strategic initiative, increasing its attacks along the front line. Commanders have said they are badly lacking troops, especially infantry troops who stand in the forwardmost trenches to repel Russian assaults. Ukraine is also facing ammunition shortages, and a $60 billion security assistance package proposed by President Biden has stalled in Congress.
U.S. officials did not offer an opinion on the change of commander in chief.
“President Zelensky is the commander in chief of his armed forces,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday. “He gets to decide who his leadership is going to be in the military. That’s what civilian control is all about. We know that. And we’ll work with whoever he has in charge of his military.”
Syrsky, who was born in Russia, completed his Soviet military education in Moscow in 1982, though he has said he considers Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to be his home.
Unlike Zaluzhny, who never served in the Soviet military, Syrsky began his military service in 1986 and worked his way up the ranks from a platoon commander, eventually commanding Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade. By 2013, he was the deputy chief of the main command center of Ukraine’s armed forces, responsible for cooperation with NATO and reforming the military to the alliance’s standards.
To some U.S. officials who long sensed distrust between Zaluzhny and Zelensky, Syrsky seemed more impressive and inspiring as a classic combat soldier, who displayed a clear grasp of the battlefield implications when facing what he viewed as political decisions.
“They get to define how they should conduct their operations,” said Celeste Wallander, the assistant defense secretary for international security affairs.
“We’ll give them our advice,” she added. “We have a very strong, I think, relationship. We have a lot of credibility and trust built between the U.S. political leadership and the Ukrainian leadership, and the military-to-military relationships.”
But Ukrainian military personnel in the field said they are especially wary of Syrsky exactly because he is considered closer and more loyal to Zelensky and the chief of his administration, Andriy Yermak.
“In a couple of months there will probably some attempts to conduct assault actions or something like that. Because Syrsky will follow Zelensky. And Zelensky wants big victories,” said a major currently fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“I think there will be more thoughtless assaults,” he added. “And holding on to territories that shouldn’t be held on to. For example Bakhmut, instead of creating a normal defense, some fortification structures, trenches, they just put people through the meat grinder to stop assault actions. I think we’ll see more of this s—.”
Another commander was more direct, using an expletive to say Ukrainian soldiers would be worse off as a result of the change — “because he’s going to comply with all political demands when making military decisions.”
David L. Stern and Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.