Russian forces are rampaging through the already battered city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine and sending waves of assault units to overwhelm outgunned Ukrainian troops. After months of brutal fighting, the Russian military is threatening to cut a vital supply line to the city, potentially making further defense impossible.
When Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky assumes his role as Ukraine’s top military commander – after a sweeping shakeup of army leadership on Thursday – he could soon be confronted again with the grim reckoning that has been a feature of the two-year war: When will Does the cost of defending the ground outweigh any benefit gained from inflicting pain on the enemy?
It’s a bloody equation that General Syrsky has had to try to solve many times as commander of ground forces in eastern Ukraine, and it’s an equation that critics – including US military officials – argue he hasn’t always got right, particularly in the battle for Bakhmut.
Evaluating that strategy will be only part of the “renewal” that President Volodymyr Zelensky said was necessary when he dismissed his commanding general, Valery Zaluzhny, on Thursday and appointed General Syrsky to replace him. Zelensky also named five generals and two colonels whom he intends to promote as part of the broad reform.
Ukraine’s military challenges go far beyond a single battle. U.S. aid, urgently needed, remains in doubt. Ukrainian troops are exhausted and lack weapons and ammunition. Air defense systems, crucial for protecting civilians from Russian missiles, are constantly being depleted due to repeated bombing.
U.S. officials assess that without resupply, Ukraine has enough air defenses to last only until next month.
And Russian President Vladimir V. Putin delivered a strong message Thursday night in an interview with Tucker Carlson, saying Ukraine would not take back territory and it was time to reach a deal.
Western military analysts have suggested that 2024 will be a year of reconstruction for Ukraine, and General Syrsky will need to find the best way to employ soldiers to slow Russian offensives while generating new and effective fighting forces. However, before Ukraine’s leaders think about making up ground, they must first hold on to what they have, and preventing Russian advances is complicated by critical shortages of soldiers and ammunition.
Western officials and military experts have warned that without US help, a cascading collapse along the front is a real possibility later this year.
It will still be at least a couple of months before the lack of renewed aid has a widespread impact, they say. But without it, they add, it is difficult to see how Ukraine will be able to maintain its current positions on the battlefield.
By next month, Ukraine could struggle to carry out local counterattacks, and by early summer, its military could struggle to repel Russian attacks, officials and analysts say.
However, officials also assess that Russia would have difficulty quickly developing enough capability to carry out a major offensive in eastern Ukraine. Instead, Russian forces will most likely advance in a clumsy and disjointed manner, but with a high threshold of casualties among their own troops.
On Friday, the Kremlin dismissed the Ukrainian leadership change as inconsequential. “We do not believe that this is a factor that could change the course of the special military operation,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters, using Moscow’s term for war. “It will continue until all its objectives are achieved.”
Still, Ukraine has managed to fend off apocalyptic scenarios in the past, most notably when it expelled Russian forces from kyiv in the early months of the war.
In his first public comments since his appointment, General Syrsky said Friday that his immediate priority would be “the most rapid and rational distribution and delivery of everything necessary for combat units” to counter Russian attacks.
He promised to put the “life and health” of troops at the forefront of battlefield decisions, working to maintain “a balance between the accomplishment of combat missions and the restoration of units.”
With his comments, General Syrsky may have been responding to critics who say he has been too willing to sacrifice soldiers to achieve questionable military goals.
Announcing the reform on Thursday, Zelensky also spoke of the need to address the needs of soldiers in the cauldron of battle. While there are almost a million people in the military, Zelensky said, “most of them have not felt the front line in the same way as the minority who are actually on the front lines, fighting.”
“This means we need a different approach particularly for rotations,” he said. “A different approach to frontline management. A different approach to mobilization and recruitment. All this will give the soldier more respect. And restore clarity to actions in the war.”
But Zelensky offered few details about how the renewed leadership would achieve its goals and did not explain where the previous commander’s team had fallen short.
Zelensky’s critics say he has avoided making politically unpopular decisions and has failed to address challenges surrounding efforts to reform and revitalize the mobilization process.
General Syrsky is a divisive figure within the military, seen by some as too close to Zelensky’s team to challenge misguided policy decisions.
But he is intimately familiar with the often Byzantine bureaucracy of the Ukrainian military and has been involved in most major command decisions during the war.
Now he will have to widen his field of vision from the bloody battles in eastern Ukraine to an expanding war being fought on land, air and sea. He has long experience commanding conventional forces, but unconventional warfare will take on an increasingly important role as Ukraine seeks to compensate for its disadvantages by waging an asymmetric campaign, including attacks inside Russia.
Beyond tactical and strategic decisions, General Syrsky must also maintain morale among the troops during one of the most difficult times of the war. That includes winning over soldiers who liked and respected his predecessor, General Zaluzhny.
General Zaluzhny is widely regarded as a heroic figure who helped save his country in its darkest hour and earned a reputation for compassion even as he made difficult decisions. On Friday, Zelensky awarded the general the title of Hero of Ukraine.
Oleksandr, a 27-year-old soldier fighting on the front who, like others in this article, asked to be identified only by his first name, in accordance with military policy, said: “In the million-strong army, There are and there will be problems, countless problems, but here we are talking about trust.”
“General Zaluzhny has had, and continues to have, unquestionable authority and trust from both the army and society,” Oleksandr added. “The president did not clearly explain to society the reasons for General Zaluzhny’s resignation.”
Other soldiers, however, seemed to take the change in stride. Viy, a 43-year-old battalion commander, said Generals Zaluzhny and Syrsky might have different management styles, but the only thing he counted on was results.
“Generally speaking, during two years of war, when you are constantly working at a very high pace, especially for military personnel, not much attention is paid to high levels of power,” Viy said.
Victor, a 45-year-old sniper, said the decision was not a surprise given the public tensions between Zelensky and General Zaluzhny.
“We are soldiers and we cannot afford to fall into the depression and panic that now partially invade civilians,” said Victor.
He also expressed concern that the Russians were trying to take advantage of the change, but said soldiers had little time to think about political machinations.
High-level strategy is important, he added, but war is fought by “ordinary guys in trenches and cities.”
“Trained commanders at the company and battalion level are the ones who win the war,” he noted. “Whether Syrsky or someone else comes, they will fight anyway. “You can’t build an army around one person.”
The report was contributed by Maria VarenikovaLiubov Sholudko and Oleksandr Sushko from Kyiv; Julian E. Barnes from Washington; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.