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„Politically and militarily hazardous“: The changing of guard at the military helm could backfire on Selenskyj

The Ukrainian President Wolodymyr Selenskyj has declared the dismissal of his military head Walerij Saluschnyj. It marks the end of a difficult situation: Media reports about discrepancies between the two men emerged by the end of January.

According to the reports, Selenskyj is said to have pressured the general to resign – at first without success. In the past days, the President and Saluschnyj then apparently met again for talks.

As Selenskyj communicated on social media, the discussions were about the “renewal of the Ukrainian armed forces”. Saluschnyj wrote that he had a “significant and serious conversation” with the Prime Minister. It was decided to change tactics and strategy on the front.

The repercussions are clear: Saluschnyj will be replaced. General Oleksandr Syrskyj, the since 2019 commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, is to take over his position. He has been considered a favorite for the succession since rumors about a possible ousting of Saluschnyj surfaced.

General Oleksandr Syrskyj, alias “Butcher”

It is certain that Saluschyj is leaving behind big shoes to fill. Selenskyj had appointed him as the supreme commander of the Ukrainian armed forces in June 2021.

“Under his leadership, the Ukrainian troops repelled the Russian advance on Kyiv in February 2022, and liberated parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine which had been occupied in the first year of the war,” says military expert and retired Colonel Ralph D. Thiele in conversation with FOCUS online.

According to his assessment, Saluschnyj’s track record is only clouded by the failure of the counteroffensive last year. Reasons for this included the well-prepared Russian defense and the stuttering logistical support from the West, says Thiele.

 

Now, General Oleksandr Syrskyj will assume his position, a battle-hardened professional soldier. Ukraine owes him “some of the biggest successes against the Russian aggressors, including the successful defense of Kyiv, the successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, and the defense of Bakhmut,” says Thiele.

But more than that, “With his ruthless warfare, even towards his own troops in Bakhmut, Syrskyj has earned the nickname ‘Butcher’. Under his leadership, the particularly experienced Ukrainian troops and – precious – special forces were sacrificed for symbolic targets.”

Syrskyj is a native Russian

Alexander Libman, Professor of Political Science focusing on Eastern Europe and Russia at the Free University of Berlin, considers other points important. “It is interesting that Syrskyj was actually born and raised in Russia,” he tells FOCUS online.

Syrskyj served as an officer in the Ukraine (then still part of the USSR). “He completed his military training in Moscow. In 2015, he was involved in the war in Eastern Ukraine as a high-ranking officer in the Ukrainian army.”

Libman finds Selenskiyj’s explanation for the change in the military leadership “somewhat vague”. “Many observers assume that the dismissal of Saluschnyj is related to the growing concern of the President that he could become too popular and develop political ambitions,” he says.

Furthermore, there were differences between Selenskyj and the general regarding military strategy and mobilization.

Thiele adds: “As a man of candid speech, Saluschnyj has publicly, unequivocally described the precarious military situation and advocated for disruptive innovations in warfare.”

set and pressed against Selensky’s hesitation for a new conscription law to tap urgently needed new personnel resources for the army.”

Syrsky appears to be cut from a different cloth

What he is referring to: In a sensational article for the “Economist”, Saluschnyj stated that the war had reached a stalemate. Only large arms deliveries and a technological leap could bring the Ukrainian armed forces back on the offensive.

Selensky publicly disagreed with his assessment. Syrskyj seems to be cut from a different cloth than his predecessor. He presents himself as a loyal follower of the president.

According to military experts, there has been a connection between the two men for some time, as reported by the “Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland” (RND).

However, it is undisputed that Syrskyj will face formidable challenges. Namely, taking over the leadership of an army that has difficulties recruiting soldiers and is increasingly inferior to a well-armed opponent, says Thiele.

“A change of leadership in the midst of war is politically and militarily risky”

The situation is also tricky for Selensky. After all, Saluschnyj was popular among his soldiers and the Ukrainian population. The removal of the general could backfire.

“A change of leadership in the midst of war is politically and militarily risky,” Thiele also believes. In his view, the change comes at a particularly difficult time for Ukraine during the war.

Namely “amid increased Russian attacks, crumbling Western support, partisan disputes in the US over support for the government in Kyiv, and tensions between the civilian and military leadership of Ukraine.”

According to Thiele, there won’t be much to see of the “renewal of the Ukrainian armed forces,” which Selenskyj used to justify Saluschnyj’s dismissal. In fact, the military expert’s conclusion is that with Syrskyj as the new commander-in-chief, a return to a traditional, Russian-influenced style of warfare is to be expected.

What does the change mean for Selensky?

For Libman, the change at the top of the Ukrainian military indicates one thing above all: a lack of unity. “There are power struggles and divisions, and Selensky takes them very seriously, even allowing them to determine his strategic decisions – and the concern for his power.”

According to the political scientist, these are not good news for Ukraine. He also considers the way the change occurred to be “very opaque and associated with unclear communication.” “Also not a good sign,” says Libman.

For defense expert Thiele, it is clear in the end: “With the restructuring of the military leadership, Selensky is ushering in a new phase of the war.” Its success or failure may also determine his political future and possibly the outcome of the war.

What will become of Saluschnyj is currently unclear. The “Washington Post” reports that he was offered an ambassadorial position in Britain. However, the general is said to have declined the position.

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