On Thursday, Feb 8, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree appointing 58-year-old Russian-born Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), replacing 50-year-old Valerii Zaluzhny, who was dismissed.

Zelensky called Syrsky “the most experienced Ukrainian commander.”

Prior to his promotion, Oleksandr Syrsky served as the Commander of the Land Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Who is the new commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army and how did he reach such heights?

Syrsky is a career soldier who was born on July 26, 1965, in the village of Novyky, in the Vladimir region of the then Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, 130 kilometers north of Moscow. At the age of 15, he moved to Ukraine, where he has lived ever since.

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During Soviet times, he graduated from the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School. He served in the army of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and, after independence, joined the National Guard and later the AFU.

In 1996, he graduated from the AFU Academy then in 2005 from the National Defense University in Kyiv.

In the winter of 2015, he was one of the lead commanders of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine (ATO) during the battle for Debaltseve. He managed to withdraw the Ukrainian group from the city which was almost surrounded by Russians. For this operation, Syrsky was awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

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In 2016, Syrsky was made the head of the Joint Operational Headquarters, which coordinated the actions of the Ukrainian military in Donbas. The following year, he became the commander of the entire Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine. Since 2019, he has been in charge of the Land Forces.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022

At the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion, Syrsky was responsible for the defense of Kyiv, for which he was awarded the title of "Hero of Ukraine."

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In February-March 2022, in order to prevent the advance of Kremlin troops to the capital, Syrsk made the decision to destroy bridge crossings in the Kyiv region. On Feb 26, 2022 the dam and a pontoon bridge over the Irpin River, 30 kilometers from Kyiv, were blown which flooded Russian army positions and stopped the rapid Russian offensive on Kyiv, which ultimately failed.

According to the Washington Post, Syrsky divided the city and its surrounding areas into sectors and appointed generals from military training centers to lead each area, creating a clear chain of command to which all Ukrainian military and security forces would be subject. Tactical decisions were devolved to officers in the field allowing them to make immediate decisions, without the need to consult with headquarters.

In the fall of 2022, Syrsky was one of the commanders of the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.

Between the fall of 2022 and the end of spring 2023, Syrsky was in charge of the defense of the cities of Soledar and Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

He is highly respected throughout the army and in person is impressive and comes across as determined and cunning, according to a BBC interview.

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He is said to sleep only four and a half hours a day with his only relaxation seemingly to be a daily workout in the gym.

Last summer, US strategists insisted that Ukrainian troops should focus on a breakthrough in the southern direction rather than wasting resources between the southern and eastern directions. Zaluzhny agreed, the NYT wrote.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian army continued the offensive for Bakhmut, which Syrsky had advocated. In an interview with the BBC last July, Syrsky called the battle for Bakhmut "a matter of principle and honor."

The Battle of Bakhmut is considered by many to be the bloodiest battle since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the most savage infantry battle since World War II, often referred to as the “Bakhmut Massacre” by sections of the media.

Since the fall of 2023, Syrsky has commanded Ukrainian troops in the northeastern section of the front, near Kupyansk and Lyman in the Donetsk region.

Politico writes that many Ukrainian soldiers call Syrsky “the butcher” behind his back, because he is seen by many to be ruthless and harsh, which is often used by Russian social media when describing what the general did to Moscow’s forces on the battlefield.

Oleksandr Syrsky is married and has two sons.

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