Ukraine's new commander-in-chief General Syrskyi has been issued a list of military priorities. A daunting list of challenges awaits him

Ukraine's new commander-in-chief General Syrskyi has been issued a list of military priorities. A daunting list of challenges awaits him

Originally published in the ABC


The announcement of General Valerii Zaluzhnyi's dismissal last week had been a long time coming.

The Ukrainian military commander-in-chief commanded through the darkest hours of 2022 and the successes of the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives. It had become apparent over the past year that Zaluzhnyi's public comment on Ukrainian strategy, his intervention in the mobilisation debate and his inability to forge a military force that could execute a successful counteroffensive in 2023 all factored into his dismissal, announced by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on February 9.

Following Zaluzhnyi's dismissal, the commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, was appointed as the new commander-in-chief. At the same time, Zelenskyy also provided him with explicit guidance. It represents an odd mix of strategic and tactical initiatives, including having more generals visit the front line.

First, Zelenskyy directed that a strategy for 2024 be developed. Clearly the president is unhappy with the current proposed approach for Ukraine's defence. Syrskyi will need to quickly present a plan that balances defensive and offensive operations as well as reconstitutes and rotates elements of the Ukrainian military. He must also align Zelenskyy's political goals with existing military means.

A second Zelenskyy priority for his new commander-in-chief is to address logistics issues. This is about ensuring accountability for securing Western-provided weapons – and ensuring the right weapons and munitions get to the appropriate combat formations in a timely fashion. It is a big challenge given the dwindling military resources that the West is able to provide Ukraine.

Personnel, training and warfighting issues

Another imperative for Zelenskyy is fixing military personnel issues. There are shortfalls in the number and quality of combat soldiers, particularly infantry, which General Zaluzhnyi had hoped to resolve with the mobilisation law currently before the Ukrainian parliament. This mobilisation debate, which has political and military dimensions, is only one element of the personnel challenges facing the new commander-in-chief.

Training is another significant challenge, with many soldiers not receiving sufficient basic training because of a lack of time. The counteroffensive also demonstrated there were major shortfalls in combined arms training at scale as well as the battlefield integration of supporting elements such as engineers and air defence.

elenskyy has also stressed the importance of addressing the size and number of headquarters. Numerous headquarters filled with large staffs are not only a drain on people, they can often create delays in wartime decision-making. Many Western military institutions, including Australia, share this problem.

The final priority in Zelenskyy's statement is establishing Ukraine's new independent military service for uncrewed military vehicles. Ukraine has for two years been acting as a battlefield laboratory. The formation of this new institution reflects again how Ukraine is experimenting with new warfighting ideas and organisations. This is driving thinking about transformation in Western military forces more broadly.

Shortly after his appointment, General Syrskyi provided his initial guidance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces via his Telegram channel. In it, he emphasises reconstituting the Ukrainian Armed Forces after a very tough 2023, improving training, and the continued absorption of new and evolved technology. He also highlights the requirement for the Ukrainian military to keep learning, adapting and developing new warfighting concepts, describing how "only changes and constant improvement of the means and methods of warfare will make it possible to achieve success".

Still, many of the keys to Syrskyi's success lie outside his remit. Securing Western military support is the responsibility of the defence minister, and is a process subject to the whims of various national leaders and parliaments. Even if the dysfunction of the US Congress is overcome, the West is running out of weapons, artillery and air defence munitions to give Ukraine. The Ukraine conflict, which is also a war of industrial systems, could be determined by production levels this year.

A polarising figure

The Ukrainian mobilisation debate will also have a significant impact on the capability of its military over the next 12 months. Combat forces on the front line are exhausted, under strength and short of important munitions. An influx of fresh conscripts is needed to rebuild units with personnel shortages and rotate brigades out for rest. Syrskyi has little influence in this mobilisation debate, but its outcome will be a crucial foundation for his plans this year and beyond.

A polarising figure in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Syrskyi therefore has a complex set of challenges before him. He must conduct an aggressive defence of his homeland, destroying Russian forces while preserving and reconstituting Ukraine's military. He must also successfully execute a major program of transformation in a million-person military. These alone are gargantuan challenges.

On top of this he must build a military strategy which closes the growing gap between the desired political outcomes of his president with Ukraine's dwindling military resources. The outcome of the Battle of Avdiivka will provide insights into this. Like Bakhmut, the president appears to not want to give up Avdiivka even if the military situation indicates a withdrawal may now be the best option to preserve the remaining fighters. Not giving up territory and preserving combat forces in the current environment will be very difficult to achieve.

Syrskyi's success will rely on a good relationship with his president, a supportive Ukrainian parliament, military assistance from the West and political objectives aligning with military realities. It is a daunting predicament.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies