Managing the Frontlines: Challenges and Expectations for Oleksandr Syrsky in Ukraine’s Military

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The new commander of Ukraine forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, does not have the luxury of relaxing in his new job. As Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine closes the two-year mark, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy newly tapped Syrsky as Ukraine’s new commander-in-chief in the biggest shakeup of Ukraine’s military supervision since the start of the war. As Ukraine’s top general, Syrsky must now encounter mounting difficulties meeting the Ukrainian military due to a variety of battlefield deadlock, workforce challenges, and deficiencies in vital aid from the country’s Western partners. 

He is already encountering a significant test of his leadership in managing the increasingly desperate defense of Avdiivka, a strategically crucial frontline city in eastern Ukraine that has been the backdrop of bitter fighting for the past five months and is now on the brink of falling to Russia.

Syrsky is one of Ukraine’s most professional and decorated generals, having acted as a senior commander since the early days of the Russian attack in 2014. Following the onset of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, he was answerable for some of Ukraine’s most spectacular victories, including the defense of Kyiv and the thriving counteroffensive of September 2022 that directed the almost complete freedom of the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine. 

Syrsky inherits a problematic and, in many ways, unfavorable military situation. Ukraine has not achieved any significant advances since the November 2022 liberation of Kherson, with Ukrainian troops incapable of breaching Russia’s extensive fortifications during the 2023 campaigning season. In recent months, Russia has continued offensive operations along the one-thousand-kilometer front, pushing Ukraine to revert to active defense

To strengthen international support for the war effort, the Ukrainian military needs to demonstrate that it can repeat the triumphs of 2022. However, Syrsky must accomplish so with dwindling resources. In recent months, weapons deliveries to Ukraine have fallen sharply, with the future of US military support becoming hostage to domestic politics. This has caused Ukrainian troops to ration ammunition and has left them increasingly outgunned at multiple hot spots along the front. In such circumstances, it will be challenging for Ukraine to climb any significant offensive operations.

In complement to ammunition and weapons shortages, Syrsky must compete with the same unresolved manpower problems that contributed to his predecessor’s downfall. Zaluzhny had driven to mobilize an additional half a million Ukrainians, but Zelenskyy was unwilling to back the call-up of so many men. The mobilization ruling is now under consideration in the Ukrainian parliament and remains the topic of heated public debate. Zelenskyy will be glancing to Syrsky for explanations that will make it possible to rotate frontline soldiers and defend the country’s current lines of defense without fueling social tensions.

As he closes these formidable challenges, Syrsky will be able to call upon a crew of relatively young commanders who have also been upgraded as part of Zelenskyy’s recent shakeup. This new generation of officers is primarily in their forties and represents a further step away from the old Soviet attitude that once dominated Ukrainian military thinking. They have all acquired extensive combat experience over the past ten years and have substantial reputations as battlefield innovators.

These officers will now be anticipated to take the lead as the Ukrainian army peeks to counter Russia’s overwhelming benefits in manpower and conventional military resources by using drones and electronic warfare instruments to maximum effect. Ukraine is already prioritizing the domestic production of drones, while Zelenskyy recently reported the creation of a separate drone warfare branch within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Incorporating new drone technologies into combat operations will be a priority this year.

In addition to widespread battleground deployment, Ukraine has also employed drones successfully in the Black Sea to sink a series of Russian warships. It has recently established a long-range drone campaign against Russia’s oil and gas industry. These endeavors now look set to expand further. With tension surrounding the future of weapons deliveries from Ukraine’s Western partners, the sustainability and economic viability of drone warfare indicate that it is likely to play an increasingly central part in Syrsky’s offensive planning for 2024.

Syrsky is taking control of the Ukrainian military at a crucial moment in the war with Russia. He is under tremendous political pressure to demonstrate that Russian President Vladimir Putin can still be beaten. 

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