Ukraine Situation Report: Zelensky Picks New Top Commander

The decision to replace popular Gen. Valeri Zaluzhny with Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi is a controversial move at a perilous time.

byHoward Altman|
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky named Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi as the new commander of the Armed Forces
Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, new commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. (Photo by Yuriy Mate/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
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After more than a week of rumors, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally named a new commander for his armed forces, tabbing Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi to replace Gen. Valeri Zaluzhny, who will retire. The controversial move, which followed months of talk of a change being imminent, however, is being met with resistance and trepidation from many in the military and civil society.

“I am grateful to General Zaluzhny for two years of protection. I am grateful for every victory we achieved together and thanks to all Ukrainian soldiers who are heroically fighting this war,” Zelensky said in a video message announcing the change on Thursday. “Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine…I appointed Colonel-General Syrskyi as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

The announcement, which came after Zelensky and Zaluzhny met Thursday, follows long-simmering tensions between the Ukrainian president and his top military commander.

The strain in their relationship boiled over into the public eye in November after Zaluzhny said the much-hyped counteroffensive designed to take back lost territory and cut off the land bridge to Crimea had reached a stalemate.

The replacement of Zaluzhny with Syrskyi, until now the Ground Forces commander, is facing criticism in Ukraine. Zaluzhny remains wildly popular and has been credited with helping Ukraine in defending against the initial Russian full-on invasion and later for the successful counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022.

New commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi (left) and the man he replaced, Gen. Valeri Zaluzhny. (Oleksandr Syrskyi Telegram)

“This can be a big tragedy for the army and for the country,” one frontline soldier told us, adding that troops consider Syrskyi a “yes man” for Zelensky.

“They don’t believe or trust him,” said the soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Shashank Joshi, defense editor for The Economist, said his sources were offering similar sentiments.

"Syrski's leadership is bankrupt, his presence or orders coming from his name are demoralizing, and he undermines trust in the command in general," he said one Ukrainian officer told him. “That is not the first time I've heard that sentiment.” 

The Financial Times suggested last month as rumors of Zaluzhny’s looming departure bubbled up that the move “would cause an uproar in Ukraine’s rank-and-file military and civil society,” where Zaluzhny “enjoys huge support. In a Ukrainian poll released in December, 88% of Ukrainians said they trusted Zaluzhny compared with 62% who said they trusted Zelensky.”

Zaluzhny was not without his detractors.

A senior Ukrainian military officer told Politico "that there has been frustration building among the upper ranks of the military that Zaluzhny spends 'a lot of time on Facebook showing off how he is doing something,' while little changes tactically or strategically along the front lines."

Ukrainian Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, at one point rumored to be a Zaluzhny replacement, told The War Zone Thursday that Syrskiy “is one of the best military [leaders] in Ukraine,” adding that he hopes the decision will be a positive for Ukraine and its defense against Russia.

However, some in Ukraine's civil society who back Zaluzhny say they will call for early elections to replace Zelensky. Several laws would need to be changed in order for presidential elections to be held, according to the Wilson Center.

The Pentagon's top spokesman said the command change won't alter U.S. support for Ukraine.

"It would be inappropriate to comment on Ukraine’s internal affairs, so I would refer you to them for any questions regarding changes in their Armed Forces," Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in an email to The War Zone. "I can tell you what won’t change is our continued support for Ukraine and their fight to defend themselves from Russian aggression."  

The change of command comes at a perilous time for Ukraine, with its counteroffensive bogged down, a total lack of new aid flowing from the U.S., and the situation in the beleaguered Donetsk Oblast city of Avdiivka bleak. Time will tell if this change works out in Ukraine's favor or it has a damaging effect for both the military and civil society alike.

Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous coverage here.

The Latest

On the battlefield, in addition to the increasingly difficult situation Ukraine faces in the Donetsk city of Avdiivka, Russia also "made confirmed gains west of Horlivka and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia region," the Institute for the Study of War reported in its latest assessment.

Ukraine may be losing ground on the battlefield, but it continues to create havoc inside Russia by attacking oil refineries and other energy supply points with long-range drones.

"The problems at the Russian refineries have become systemic," Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian government advisor said on Twitter. "Due to drone strikes and process failures, fuel production is being reduced, causing prices to rise in Russia. The Ministry of Energy had to admit that the strikes caused gasoline and diesel exports to drop by 37% and 23%, respectively. As OSINT researcher Stanimir Dobrev noted, after the UAV attack on the Nizhny Novgorod refinery, gasoline production in Russia fell by 2%."

Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykailo Fedorov says Kyiv is developing its own version of the Russian Lancet loitering munition — a type of ‘kamikaze’ drone with an integral warhead that can loiter in a target area, before attacking its chosen target by flying into it and detonating.

It will have a range of up to 40 km (about 25 miles), Fedorov claimed.

"At a range of up to 20 km, we have a large number of copters that use [First Person View] FPV drones, but at night it is quite difficult to find a target at a range of 20 km," he explained. "We can see this from statistics. We need to hit at 40 km."

Lancet-type drones are "quite high-tech, and it took half a year to accelerate the market in this direction," he added.

The recent downing of an Iranian-made Shahed-238 jet-powered drone by Ukraine appears to indicate that once again, these weapons contain a great deal of foreign components, according to a report obtained by the Ukrainian Defence Express news outlet.

The list include a turbojet engine from a Czech company, a satellite navigation from a Canadian company and several parts from U.S. companies, the publication reported. As we have reported previously, several Iranian-made drones used by Russia have been found packed with foreign components, including the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-136 drones.

There are claims that Russia is using Starlink satellite communications systems in Ukraine.

"Russian troops began to use Starlink satellite communication terminals in the occupied territories," the Ukrainian Ukranews outlet reported, citing social media posts from a couple of Ukrainian troops. "To do this, they purchase systems with license accounts registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)."

"It is noted that previously the Russians used Starlink in the occupied territories to an extremely limited extent," the publication reported.

SpaceX put out a statement denying this.

"SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military. Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country," the company said on Twitter. "SpaceX has never sold or marketed Starlink in Russia, nor has it shipped equipment to locations in Russia."

"If Russian stores are claiming to sell Starlink for service in that country, they are scamming their customers," the statement continued. "Starlink also does not operate in Dubai. Starlink cannot be purchased in Dubai nor does SpaceX ship there. Additionally, Starlink has not authorized any third-party intermediaries, resellers or distributors of any kind to sell Starlink in Dubai. If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorized party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed."

Ukraine offered a rare view of one of its donated National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles Systems, or NASAMS launchers. Note that the six-pack launcher contains five AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM)s. You can read more about the advantage these munitions provide Ukraine in our initial report about them here.

Ecuador plans to deliver Osa-AKM air defense systems to Ukraine through the United States, the Ecuadorian Infodefensa media outlet reported. The condition of these systems is unknown, the publication reported. The deal, previously described as one involving "scrap metal," was heavily criticized last week by Russia, Reuters reported.

"Such a reckless decision was taken by the Ecuadorian side under serious pressure from outside interested parties," said Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry's spokeswoman.

Video of a U.K. supplied ground-based air defense system centered around the AIM-132 ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile) system mounted on a Supacat HMT truck has emerged in Ukraine. The system takes the AIM-132, a hugely capable weapon, and adapts it for surface launch. You can read more about it in our story here

This Russian vehicle tried to flee a Ukrainian quadcopter drone, but as you can see from the video below, it was unsuccessful. The strike showed fine timing, as you can see by the arc of the munition as it was released and ultimately hit the vehicle.

This war has had a devastating effect on Ukraine's environment as well, as you can see in this video below of a Russian 152mm artillery shell that bored its way into a tree. How it didn't explode is unknown, but likely a very lucky break for any Ukrainian troops nearby.

New video has emerged on social media showing a Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker fighter, flying low to avoid Russian sensors on its way to prosecute its suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission back in 2022. The fighter was equipped for that purpose with a U.S.-supplied AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARMs against Russian air defenses. The Pentagon first confirmed delivery of those munitions to Ukraine in August 2022.

Given that until 1991 Ukraine had been for years subsumed into the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that this current conflict has pit family members against each other. Such apparently was the case of this 19-year-old Ukrainian Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander who lived in Russia until he was about 10. In an interview with the Ukrainian TCH news outlet, Oleksandr said he actually squared off his father, a Russian tank commander who fired a shell into his Bradley.

"Son, once I knew it was you, I stopped firing," he said his father told him during a telephone conversation after the duel.

The War Zone cannot independently verify the commander's claims about his father.

There's another interesting note to this story. Oleksandr commanded the Brad seen in the video peppering a pounding a Russian T-90M Breakthrough tank with rounds from Bushmaster M242 25mm automatic cannon. You can read more about that engagement here.

In a sign that the drone wars are upon us, a crashed Russian Orlan-30 drone was recovered by a Ukrainian uncrewed ground vehicle.

Despite the controversy that erupted when a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transport aircraft crashed last month, with claims that it contained Ukrainian prisoners of war and was shot down by Ukraine, those exchanges resumed today.

"This is a working process as you can see. It took a little time but it happened. Russia said they will freeze the process and yet we are here," Budanov said. "Will we negotiate with them? Just look there, this is the answer. They said they would freeze the process but your answer is here."

Earlier in the day, when we asked Budanov about the change in Ukraine's military leadership, he said he was busy working on an exchange of 100 prisoners with Russia.

The claims about the prisoners being on the aircraft were never confirmed by Ukraine.

And finally, swearing is an international ubiquity, especially in close calls like the one experienced by the crew of this vehicle in the video below that narrowly missed getting hit by what appears to be an anti-tank guided missile whizzing by overhead.

A still from that video shows how close the munition came.

A close call for the crew of this armor vehicle as an apparent anti-tank guided missile flew just over the barrel of its main gun. (Twitter screencap)

That's it for now.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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