Commander-in-chief since 2021, the popular general was replaced Thursday by Army Chief Oleksandr Syrsky. It is “the time for renewal,” declared President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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“Today the decision was made to change the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”, announced Thursday February 8 the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Roustem Oumerov. Valeri Zaloujny is thus dismissed from his position, after a little more than two and a half years in this position.
The man who caused the capture of kyiv by the Russian army to fail, in February 2022, in the early hours of the war, was replaced by the head of the army, Oleksandr Syrsky. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky charged him with developing a battle plan “realistic” for Ukraine in 2024, at a time when kyiv is worried about the erosion of Western support and internal dissensions in the United States and within the European Union. Franceinfo answers four questions that this important moment in the conflict raises.
Who is Valery Zalouzhny, former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army?
The man who has been commander-in-chief of the army since July 2021 can boast of great popularity among the Ukrainians since the failure of the Russian offensive launched on kyiv on February 24, 2022, often credited to him. The charismatic 50-year-old soldier is also outspoken and does not hesitate to take a stand, even if it means not engaging in diplomacy. “It’s not a show, it’s not a game you bet on. Every day, every meter is given by blood”replied Valeri Zalouzhny to Washington Post in June 2023, in the face of criticism from the West for not seeing progress on the Ukrainian front.
Born in a Soviet military garrison in north-west Ukraine, he is part of the first generation of Ukrainian soldiers to have served their entire career after the fall of the USSR. He joined the general staff in 2017, with the priority of bringing the Ukrainian army up to NATO standards, which Ukraine aims to join despite opposition from the Kremlin. One of his crucial decisions was to delegate decision-making initiative to officers on the battlefield, in contrast to the centralizing Soviet culture. This flexibility proved decisive at the start of the war in inflicting several routs on the Russian forces.
Why did Volodymyr Zelensky remove him from office?
For several months, the tension between Valeri Zalouzhny and Volodymyr Zelensky was increasingly palpable. In Ukraine, the front line has been almost frozen since the end of 2022 and the summer counter-offensive launched by Valeri Zalouzhny did not have the expected military success. Quickly turning the tide is an imperative for Ukraine, at a time when, in the United States as in Europe, the era when kyiv’s allies seemed ready to spend lavishly seems to be over. It is “time of renewal”declared Volodymyr Zelensky shortly after the announcement of the change of commander-in-chief.
“Our fight continues and evolves every day. The tasks of 2022 are different from those of 2024”reacted Valeri Zalouzhny on Telegram, to the announcement of the appointment of the new commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, evoking a discussion “serious” with the Ukrainian president. The two men published the same photo where they are seen shaking hands while smiling on their respective Telegram channels. A facade agreement? While Valery Zaluzhny’s popularity rivals that of Volodymyr Zelensky, according to Ukrainian polls, the ex-commander in chief could be “a potential political threat if a presidential election were to take place”estimates the Washington Post. Polls are suspended in Ukraine due to martial law. Under normal conditions, Ukrainian citizens would have been called to the polls this year to choose the head of state.
Who is his replacement, Oleksandr Syrsky?
Although less popular than his predecessor, Oleksandr Syrsky still has several feats of arms to his credit. Qualified for “Ukraine’s most experienced general” by Volodymyr Zelensky, he commanded the defense of kyiv at the start of the Russian invasion, then the counter-offensive in the fall of 2022 which liberated the Kharkiv region, in the east of the country. Do “hero of Ukraine”, the highest national distinction, by Volodymyr Zelensky in April 2022, 48% of Ukrainians say they do not know Oleksandr Syrsky, according to a survey in December 2023. The 58-year-old soldier, who until then led the army and the troops in the east of the country, is in fact more of a fan of dry official communications than of the front pages of the newspapers. It is also the“one of the rare high-ranking commanders to regularly go to the front line”says the spokesperson for the eastern front, Illia Ievlach.
The appointment of Oleksandr Syrsky, however, provokes some criticism. Some in fact criticize him for a military approach that is too “Soviet” and not being sufficiently sensitive to human losses. He “knows how to fulfill the tasks assigned to him, but at the same time does not always count human losses“, says the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukraïnska Pravda. Like most of the senior officers of his generation, Oleksandre Syrsky, born in 1965 in Russia to a military father, studied at the Red Army command school in Moscow. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the USSR, however, he joined the ranks of the brand new army of the newly independent Ukraine and finished his studies at the National Defense University in kyiv.
In order to repel criticism from his detractors, Oleksandr Syrsky spoke the day after his appointment. “The life and health of soldiers has always been and remains the main value of the Ukrainian army”he promised on Telegramwhere he calls for “improvement” of the army so that Ukraine can win the war. “Quick and rational distribution and delivery of everything necessary for combat units have been and remain the main tasks of military logistics”he also said, while Ukraine lacks men and ammunition.
How is Russia reacting?
Asked about the dismissal of Valeri Zalouzhny and the arrival of Oleksandr Syrsky at the head of the Ukrainian army, the Russian authorities let nothing show. “We do not believe that these are factors capable of changing the course of the special military operation [nom donné par Moscou à l’invasion de l’Ukraine]. This will continue until the objectives are achieved.”estimates Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov.
Earlier, when rumors of a change of commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army were already circulating, the Kremlin believed that this was probably the consequence of Ukraine’s failed counter-offensive, and followed “problems on the front for kyiv.