General Oleksandr Sirski is one of the heroes that the Russian invasion gave to Ukraine. The new commander of the armed forces, the country’s most important military post, enjoys the great trust of President Volodymyr Zelensky, unlike his predecessor, also General Valeri Zaluzhni. Sirski will go down in history for leading the defense of Kiev at the start of the war, in February and March 2022, and for successfully commanding the lightning counter-offensive that liberated Kharkiv province in September 2022. But charisma of Zaluzhni, idolized by the troops, will be difficult for the new commander to overcome, according to leading analysts of the conflict.
Sirski is 58 years old and was born in Novinka, a municipality near Moscow. Son of a Soviet soldier, the Russian state agency TASS ensures that part of his family, including a brother, still resides in Russia, without however maintaining any relationship between them. Sirski graduated in 1986 from the most important Soviet high command school in Moscow. In the late 1980s he moved to Ukraine and since the country’s independence (1991) he has been one of the most promising officers. In 2013, he was appointed head of the Ukrainian army’s cooperation with NATO. Since the start of his presidency, in 2019, he and Zaluzhni have been Zelensky’s bets to accelerate the transformation of the armed forces according to the standards of the Atlantic Alliance. Sirski has been at the head of the army since that year.
Like so many other senior Ukrainian officials, Sirski’s practical experience as a military leader took a leap forward during the war that began in 2014 against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. is from the country. The experience of fighting against Russia since then, the knowledge of the Soviet military model and the adaptation of NATO tactical methods are the combination that allowed high-ranking soldiers like him or Zaluzhni to stop the invasion of a superpower.
Sirski will be remembered for the victory at the siege of kyiv and for the surprise offensive that expelled the Russians from virtually the entire Kharkiv province. In this counter-offensive, it was Sirski who took the credit, projected by the presidency, leaving Zaluzhni in second place. in his book The showmanjournalist Simon Shuster, after living for a year and a half with the president and his team, reveals that the offensive in Kharkov was a direct decision by Zelensky entrusted to Sirski, bypassing the command of Zaluzhni, in favor of the liberation of the province. first of Kherson.
The showman It also indicates that the resistance to the last meter in Bakhmut was a decision of the president against the advice of Zaluzhni. He is in favor of a withdrawal which would avoid needlessly burning resources. Officially, both defended the same strategy, but up to four officers interviewed by EL PAÍS in the summer and fall of 2023, during the failure of the counter-offensive on the Zaporizhia front, explained that indeed, the current commander-in-chief was in favor of withdrawal. .
Bakhmut was taken by the invaders in March 2023, after more than six months of battle. The Ukrainian armed forces have focused their war effort on the resistance in this town in Donetsk province. Meanwhile, Russia took the opportunity to fortify the entire front with defensive lines that proved impregnable with the resources Ukraine had at its disposal. The Russian army burned in Bakhmut mainly the shock force it used, the mercenaries of the Wagner group.
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An estimated 30,000 of Wagner’s fighters perished in the battle. Defense analysts and media such as Pravda, The Kyiv Independent either Financial Times They pointed out that Sirski had acquired a reputation in Bakhmut as a ruthless commander, not hesitating to sacrifice the lives of his men. The butcher ” is the nickname he received from his subordinates, according to several Ukrainian military social media accounts.
“I admit that I was a little surprised by this choice and it has already created a real controversy,” wrote Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of Saint Andrews (Scotland), on his website. “Sirski divides opinion like no other military figure in Ukraine, and his appointment is a risky move for Zelensky,” he said. “The president’s decision is controversial and comes at an extremely difficult time on all fronts,” added Serhii Zgurets, director of Defense Express, Ukrainian media specializing in military analysis: “Sirski will surely not have the level of trust that Zaluzhni had between the military and civilians. »
Sirski issued his first statement as commander-in-chief on Friday. The general assures that “the life and health of soldiers are the main asset of an army”. This is why, he indicates, “it is more important than ever to maintain the balance between the development of combat actions and the recovery of units.” Sirski does not mention in the note one of the subjects on which Zaluzhni exerted the most pressure on Zelensky, namely the need to carry out a new massive mobilization, of at least 500,000 new soldiers, to compensate for the hundreds of thousands of victims suffered during the war. the two years of war. The Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, is debating a new law on mobilization these weeks, an unpopular issue that the president has tried to handle with the greatest possible restraint, because people ready to voluntarily go to war now constitute exceptional cases .
Zaluzhni had reiterated in recent months that the war was at a standstill and that there was no possibility of recovering territory, at least in 2024, due to the lack of sufficient resources provided by its NATO allies. The general concluded that the conflict would henceforth be positional, without major operations. Zaluzhni’s realism irritated Zelensky. The president defended last Sunday that military leadership needed a renewal to convey optimism: “If we want to win, everyone must push in the same direction, convinced of victory, we cannot lose hope” .
Sirski told Reuters last January that the front was not frozen and that progress could be made in 2024. But the truth is that Russia is currently overtaking Ukraine in all military areas and gaining little to little of the land in the provinces of Donetsk and Kharkiv. In his first statement as commander-in-chief, Sirski stressed that the “rational” use of weapons was a priority.
The Ukrainian government periodically insists that its arsenals are at the limit due to difficulties in Europe, and particularly the United States, in supplying new weapons and projectiles. Whoever heads the Ukrainian army, without agreement in Washington between Republicans and Democrats on the allocation of a new military assistance program, the future of the war will tilt in favor of the Kremlin. The 55 billion euros that President Joe Biden plans to allocate to kyiv are not enough to launch new offensives, but they are enough to resist. Ukraine’s defense budget for 2024, taking into account this aid, is three times lower than that of Russia. This is the harsh reality that Sirski must deal with.
Relief of the Chief of Staff
A day after Sirski’s appointment, the Ukrainian president fired the chief of staff. “I thank Lieutenant General Sergi Shaptala for his service during these two years of war,” Zelensky said in a message.
The new commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has proposed Major General Anatoly Bargilevich as number two, replacing Shaptala, according to the Ukrainian president’s speech. The changes at the head of the army also affected “the deputies of the chief of staff”, according to Zelensky.
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