President Volodymyr Zelensky sacked Zaluzhny on Thursday, even as the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) warned this might trigger riots or a mutiny. General Aleksandr Syrsky has since been announced as Zaluzhny’s replacement.
Officially, the US has neither supported nor opposed Zaluzhny’s firing, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan telling the media last weekend that “we’re just not going to get embroiled in that particular decision”.
Unofficially, Zaluzhny was blamed for the Ukrainian disagreements with the Pentagon during the 2023 counteroffensive, a source who has “advised the White House on military matters” told Politico.
British and American generals helped plan and wargame Ukraine’s big offensive push to the Azov Sea, but Zaluzhny “tossed aside” the plan after just four days of brutal fighting and opted for tactics the Ukrainians were more familiar with, according to a Washington Post postmortem published in December.
The anonymous adviser told Politico that the Ukrainians “just weren’t interested in US advice, and they generally concluded that we have nothing to offer them advice-wise”, noting that many of the Pentagon’s suggestions ended up “tone-deaf” as the Americans had no experience in this kind of warfare.
While Zaluzhny bore the brunt of the blame for this, the US “kept yelling at the wrong person”, Politico’s source claimed, because he was “hamstrung by Zelensky” and the president had the final say on military matters.
The much-heralded offensive resulted in “staggering manpower losses”, according to Politico, while failing to achieve any of its objectives. Since then, disagreements between Zelensky and Zaluzhny have gone public. The leader also suspected the general of wanting to run for president, to the point where his sacking was seen as a political necessity, one Ukrainian analyst told the outlet.
Syrsky, who is widely unpopular in the military, is reportedly seen as politically safe as he is an ethnic Russian with no political ambitions.
Politico reported on Thursday Syrsky is deeply unpopular among the rank and file of the Ukrainian military, who view him as a “butcher” willing to sacrifice waves of troops. Syrsky is a controversial choice, best known for “leading forces into a meat grinder in Bakhmut [called Artyomovsk in Russia], sending wave after wave of troops to face opposition fire”, according to the outlet.
The unsuccessful defense of Artyomovsk/Bakhmut last year cost Ukraine dearly, and earned Syrsky the nickname ‘butcher’, an anonymous source within the Ukrainian military told the news site. A captain told the outlet that Syrsky’s appointment is a “very bad decision”, adding that soldiers refer to him as ‘General200’, a nickname that Politico said refers to 200 of his men dying, but could also refer to ‘Cargo 200’, a Soviet and Russian military code used to describe corpses being removed from the battlefield.
“General Syrsky’s leadership is bankrupt, his presence or orders coming from his name are demoralizing, and he undermines trust in the command in general,” an anonymous Ukrainian military officer and frontline intelligence analyst posted on X.
“His relentless pursuit of tactical gains constantly depletes our valuable human resources, resulting in tactical advances such as capturing tree lines or small villages, with no operational goals in mind.”
“This approach creates a never-ending cycle of fruitless assaults that drain personnel,” the officer said.
In a group chat of Bakhmut/Artyomovsk veterans, one soldier wrote “we’re all f**ked” upon learning of Syrsky’s appointment, Politico stated.
Syrsky takes over command of a depleted military, with Kiev having lost more than 383,000 men since the hostilities started in February 2022, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Prior to his dismissal, Zaluzhny warned Zelensky that a rapid improvement in Ukraine’s position on the battlefield was unlikely, regardless of who took his place, the Washington Post reported last week.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia’s campaign against Ukraine will not be affected by Syrsky’s appointment, and that Moscow will continue until its objectives are achieved.