POLITICS

Ukraine’s new army chief signals new momentum, but huge problems stand in the way

Feb 9, 2024, 4:41 AM | Updated: 1:12 pm

CORRECTS SPELLING: FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Commander of Ukraine's Ground Fo...

CORRECTS SPELLING: FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrski, right, look at a map during their visit to the front line city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Nov. 30, 2023. Oleksandr Syrski was appointed as new Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s new military chief signaled Friday that he wants to build new momentum, saying his immediate goals are to improve troop rotation at the front lines and harness the power of new technology, at a time when Kyiv’s forces are largely on the defensive in the war with Russia.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who previously was the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, spoke a day after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put him in charge of the battlefield campaign with the war poised to enter its third year. He replaced the broadly popular Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

“New tasks are on the agenda,” Syrskyi said on his Telegram channel.

Syrskyi emphasized the need for “maintaining a balance between the fulfillment of combat tasks and the restoration of units with the intensification of training,” in an apparent reference to the need to rotate troops exhausted by nearly two years of fighting.

He also stressed the importance of “new technical solutions and the scaling of successful experience, such as the use of unmanned systems and modern electronic warfare means.”

Though he provided little detail, his remarks appeared to align with Zelenskyy’s stated aim of bringing “renewal” to the armed forces and adopting a fresh approach to the fight.

Later on Friday, Zelenskyy announced that he also replaced the chief of the military’s General Staff, Lt. Gen. Serhiy Shaptala with Maj. Gen. Anatoliy Barhylyevych, whose experience and understanding of “the tasks of this war and Ukrainian goals” he noted. Shaptala was a close associate of Zaluzhnyi.

But the changes at the top won’t solve some of Ukraine’s biggest problems: a shortage of manpower that has helped sap morale and may require a mass mobilization, and the inadequate supply of Western weapons to take on Russia’s might.

Kyiv officials are “rethinking” their war strategy “with a new emphasis on improved technology and updated command and control,” said James Nixey, an analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank.

One sign of that may be the claimed recent sinking of a Russian warship in the Black Sea by a new generation of Ukrainian naval drones.

“It’s not going to be easy” for Syrskyi, said Marina Miron, a researcher at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. “There are a lot of problems” for Ukraine at the moment.

She cited a lack of ammunition, uncertainty about new weapons from Ukraine’s Western allies, a manpower shortage, people’s reluctance to be drafted, the tiredness of troops getting no respite from the front lines, and the question of how Zaluzhnyi’s departure might affect morale.

Whereas Zaluzhnyi was a proponent at this stage of the war of active defense — securing defensive lines while also searching for Russia’s weak points and hitting rear areas with long-range strikes — Syrskyi “will try to push the Ukrainian forces. … He will try to increase counterattacks possibly,” Miron said in a telephone interview.

That would align with Zelenskyy’s desire to take a more aggressive approach.

The Associated Press spoke to soldiers and commanders on the front lines, who expressed varied views about the changes at the top. Some said they would reserve judgement on Syrskyi until they witness changes on the ground, while others said he was a competent and capable general.

The shake-up caused some apprehension on the streets of the capital, Kyiv.

Alisa Riazantseva, a 35-year-old marketing specialist, said she had been “generally satisfied” with Zaluzhnyi. “We hope that our government has not made a big mistake” by replacing him, she told the AP.

Oleksandr Azimov, 61, said there was “some discontent, some dissatisfaction” about the changes at the top .

The consternation appeared to be rooted in previous criticism of Syrskyi’s strategy of holding on for nine months to the city of Bakhmut, which brought the war’s longest and bloodiest battle and cost Ukraine dearly in troop losses, but also served to sap Russia’s forces.

Later Friday, dozens gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square to protest Zaluzhnyi’s removal. They chanted slogans in support of the former army chief and called for the ousters of Syrskyi and Zelenskyy. A soldier tried to reason with the protesters, telling them the government has a plan, but they were having none of it.

With the fighting about to enter its third year, Kyiv is largely dependent on support from Western countries where signs of war fatigue have emerged.

That has left Ukraine on the back foot while Russia has placed its economy on a war footing and is building up its weapon stockpiles.

Analysts detected no sign of a deeper malaise in Zelenskyy’s move, which had been rumored for weeks.

“Command changes are normal for a state fighting a war over several years,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said late Thursday.

Asked about Zaluzhnyi’s exit and Syrskyi’s appointment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday downplayed the reshuffle, saying that they wouldn’t affect the course of the Russian operation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used an interview broadcast late Thursday with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to urge Washington to recognize Moscow’s interests and persuade Ukraine to sit down for talks.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington for talks with President Joe Biden on Friday about new U.S. military aid for Ukraine. The vital support is being held up by disputes in Congress.

Syrskyi, who was born in the Soviet Union and attended Moscow Higher Military Command School as well as serving in the Soviet Artillery Corps, is described as an obsessive planner, and his comments Friday said his first job was to ensure “clear and detailed planning.”

He also placed emphasis on ensuring the well-being of troops. “The life and health of servicemen have always been and are the main value of the Ukrainian Army,” he said — perhaps a reference to the Bakhmut criticism.

Syrskyi is viewed as the architect of the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in September 2022. That was the most significant Ukrainian victory of the war, allowing Kyiv to push the Kremlin’s forces out of the cities of Kupiansk and Izium.

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Associated Press writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed reporting

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Ukraine’s new army chief signals new momentum, but huge problems stand in the way