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Military leadership reset

Feb 14, 2024 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

I speculated in last week’s column about General Zaluzhnyi’s possible dismissal, so it was no surprise to me that President Zelensky finally made the difficult decision a few days ago and replaced him with General Syrskyi. There were many reasons for this of course, though the bottom line is that the Ukrainian forces have basically been treading water for the past year, with their much vaunted “counteroffensive” initiated last spring sputtering to a halt amid stubborn and deep defenses by the occupying Russians. This lack of success cannot all be laid at Zaluzhnyi’s feet, as he was constrained by inadequate support from Ukraine’s allies, who failed to provide crucial military technology and supplies in a timely manner. Nonetheless, as the Commander-in-Chief he was accountable, and has now paid the price for it.

Replacing top commanders during times of war is nothing new. During World War II in the fighting in North Africa, the British commanders of the 8th Army were replaced no less than three times. General Cunningham was dismissed and replaced by General Ritchie, who was subsequently dismissed and replaced by General Auchinleck, who was also eventually replaced by General Bernard Montgomery. During the Korean War, President Truman did not hesitate to replace the much vaunted and admired Field Marshall Douglas MacArthur, when the latter refused to adhere to Presidential direction when it came to the conduct of the war.

During the war in Vietnam, President Johnson, replaced his commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, when he failed to make any headway towards ending the war with North Vietnam and the Viet Kong. Generals serve at the discretion of the head of state and are ultimately accountable to their political masters for wartime failures or lack of success.

One should note, that Zelensky did not just dismiss General Zaluzhnyi, but also initiated a large-scale restructuring of the top echelon of leaders of the Ukrainian military, bringing in many younger, battle-tested officers to take over the conduct of the war. His announced priorities were to promote innovation, exploit new technologies, improve logistical support, enhance training and rotational procedures for front-line troops, and expedite anti-corruption efforts within the ministry of defense. It should be understood that all of this will take time, so it would be naïve to expect tangible improvements or successes in the short-term. Nonetheless, by this summer, I would expect to see some signs that these significant changes in leadership are having the desired effect.

The most important question most Ukrainians as well as Ukraine’s allies have, is what can they expect of the new commander, General Syrskyi? His style and personality is quite different from General Zaluzhnyi. Zaluzhnyi was seen as a new-age, modern military leader, with good communications and PR skills. He was well liked by the troops under his command as he placed a high priority on minimizing risks and casualties, though some had criticized him as not being aggressive enough in his tactics. General Syrskyi, on the other hand, is more of an old-school type of general, concerned more with results, and not afraid to make bold moves. Perhaps this comes from the fact that most of his military training was done in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union, though he has been quick enough to adapt to NATO standards and military doctrines. He has been in charge of the Ukrainian units fighting in the bloody battlefields of Bakhmut, Kupiansk and Avdiivka, where the Ukrainian forces have suffered significant casualties, earning him the designation of “butcher” by some of his critics, who feel that he should have abandoned those strategically unimportant towns to the Russians.

It is also somewhat ironic that Syrskyi is an ethnic Russian, born in Russia, and where in fact his parents and other family members still live. His mother tongue is Russian, though I have been told that he has been making serious efforts at learning the Ukrainian language. Although some Ukrainians may have some questions about his loyalty, his track record speaks for itself, as he has been one of the most effective and successful military leaders for Ukraine during this war. He also enjoys a close friendship and working relationship with President Zelensky.

I think we all share hopes that these changes will have a positive outcome in helping change the current trajectory of the war. Realistically though, no matter how skilled and capable this new leadership team of the Ukrainian military proves to be, the most important determining factor for success lies largely outside of Ukraine’s control, and that is the timeliness and level of support of its allies. Ukraine’s military is starting to run desperately short of ammunition and critical military technology and supplies, while the American government is locked in seemingly endless political wranglings in approving the necessary aid. In the long run, this will probably be the deciding factor in how long this war is going to last.

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