February 29, 2024

Syrsky, who replaces General Valerii Zaluzhny, has been called ‘Snow Leopard’ and ‘Hero of Ukraine’ for his battlefield successes.

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, the man President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has chosen to lead Ukraine’s military, has played a key role in some of the country’s biggest victories in its war with Russia, including overseeing the successful defence of the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the invasion.

Like most senior officers of his generation, Syrsky was born in Soviet Russia, in July 1965, and studied at a Red Army academy in Moscow.

In the 1980s he was deployed to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, he remained in Ukraine, studying at the National Defence University in Kyiv and joining the ranks of the newly independent Ukrainian army.

The choice of Syrsky as commander-in-chief is hardly a surprise because few in the Ukrainian military have the experience and know-how to be able to fill the shoes of his popular predecessor, General Valerii Zaluzhny.

In 2014, he commanded Ukrainian troops fighting a Moscow-backed insurgency in the eastern Donetsk region and was given the call sign “Snow Leopard”.

In 2019, he became head of Ukraine’s land forces and led the country into war when Russia invaded in February 2022.

In the early months of the war, he was named a “Hero of Ukraine”, the country’s highest honour, because of his successful defence of Kyiv.

Soviet training

In July 2022, Syrsky planned and executed a lightning counteroffensive that pushed Russian troops away from the northern city of Kharkiv and retook swathes of land in the east and southeast.

Two months later, Syrsky was credited with orchestrating the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, which was the most significant Ukrainian victory in the war and enabled Kyiv to retake the cities of Kupiansk and Izyum from the Russians.

He has also led the Bakhmut operation, which was the war’s longest and bloodiest and has been criticised because of the high losses suffered by Ukrainian forces. The tactic to pin Russian forces in the strategically insignificant salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine also exhausted Russian troops and resources, sapping their ability to forge major breakthroughs elsewhere.

Some military analysts believe his battlefield tactics reflect his hierarchical Soviet training.

His successes on the front lines have earned him the backing of his soldiers, who have been locked in grinding battles for two years. He says his priority is the morale of his soldiers, whom he is regularly pictured visiting at the front.

But as triumphs turned to attrition in the war, Syrsky has had to oversee the most difficult phase of the conflict, which will enter its third year this month. Shortages of ammunition and fresh personnel threaten to weaken the Ukrainian lines as Russians eye an advance.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces’ main goal this winter has been holding the territory it controls, as much-needed United States military aid is held up in Congress.

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