Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky is Ukraine’s second-ranking officer. In an interview with our partner portal The Economist, he explains why one should not underestimate the Russians.
General Oleksandr Syrsky is late. He apologizes when he finally arrives at a location near his situation center in eastern Ukraine two hours after the scheduled time.
In war you have to be prepared for surprises, he says: Just when everything seems to be in order, you are caught in a storm.
He gets the words out in a tense staccato. Syrsky looks exhausted, probably because of the mental stress that comes with commanding operations on the Ukrainian Eastern Front.
“The Russians are not idiots,” he says. “You are not weak. Anyone who underestimates them must expect defeat.”
The commander of Ukraine’s combat troops is described by his peers as an ascetic and meticulous strategist with a passion for the gym. It is said that he even had one built in his headquarters.
Syrsky did much to sway the war in his country’s favor.
He was responsible for two crucial victories: in March he stopped the Russian army, which Russia itself describes as “the second largest military force in the world”, at the gates of Kiev and in September he pushed it back out of the Kharkiv region.
Now he’s the man tasked with confronting a humiliated but newly formed Russian army. An army using all its fighting power against the city of Bakhmut in the Donbass.
In an interview, the general explains that the Russians have changed their tactics under their new commander Sergei Surovikin. They attack with smaller, well-coordinated ground forces, he says.
This costs soldiers’ lives, but that was “never Russia’s top priority”. General Syrsky pats his chest. “I feel every loss right here, in my heart.”
He was born in Russia, in Vladimir, 200 kilometers east of Moscow, but has lived in Ukraine since the 1980s. Syrsky has climbed through most of the hierarchy in the Ukrainian army from platoon upwards.
Before becoming head of Ukraine’s ground forces in 2019, he was supreme commander of military operations in the east of the country and played a crucial role in many of the key battles of what was then the unofficial war with Russia.
On several missions, he was even subordinate to Valery Zaluzhny in the chain of command, who was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the entire armed forces in July 2021. Some political actors behind the scenes could use this fact to stoke tensions between the two.
There are even rumors that the presidential administration might try to replace the popular but independent-minded General Zaluzhny with his former boss. The signs of disunity worry senior Western military officials.
For their part, the two generals say they have complete trust in each other and want to stay out of politics. General Syrsky is clearly uncomfortable with this conversation.
“The army is outside of politics,” he explains. “This is exactly how it should be and how the law requires it to be.”
Like other Russian commanders, General Syrsky went through the Moscow Combined Arms College, the Soviet equivalent of the American military academy at West Point, which was not unusual for his generation.
But that’s where the similarities end. His own leadership style deviates greatly from the Soviet and Russian hierarchical tradition. He preaches the NATO principles of decentralized leadership and emphasizes the importance of morality.
The modern commander needs to be in constant touch, he says. He receives about 300 messages a day from soldiers. “You have to feel the spirit of the army,” he says.
General Syrsky’s leadership style uses deception and surprise to make up for Ukraine’s sharp deficit in gunpower.
In Kyiv, where Ukrainian forces were once outnumbered 12-1, he recruited makeshift battalions from military training schools and then used partisan groups to stop a 40-mile (64 km) supply convoy as it attempted to advance towards Kyiv. It was a close affair, he says.
In the Kharkiv region, General Syrsky used light, mobile groups, which he recruited from smaller units of existing brigade formations. He had already achieved his most ambitious goal – the capture of two important Russian logistics centers in Kupjansk and Izyum – on the fifth day.
Syrsky says he was as surprised as everyone else by the speed of the advance. Instead of sticking to the original battle plan and going on the defensive, he ordered his troops to pursue the fleeing Russian forces as far as possible, which ended up being 50 kilometers in three days.
If the general had been able to call for reinforcements, the collapse of the Russian front in the nearby northern Luhansk region at Svatove and Kreminna might have been even more serious.
But troops were tied down by fighting near the Lysychansk oil refinery to the south, and the Russians eventually repelled the offensive by deploying thousands of newly mobilized soldiers. “You always have too few soldiers. We fought this war with reservists practically the whole time,” explains the general.
The experience in Luhansk has shown how Vladimir Putin’s recruiting strategy can work. Well-trained soldiers are now appearing in large numbers on the eastern front lines, some of them coming “from remote areas of Russia, including… the eastern provinces and the Urals.”
That’s worrying, the general says, but a more pressing issue is arming the Ukrainian army. Ammunition consumption is comparable to that of World War II. The battles are won by the warring faction that can provide the quickest ammo replenishment.
When asked what victory looks like, General Syrsky quotes the mantra of his President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “We win when the enemy is destroyed and we are at our borders,” he says.
His sober assessment of the current situation suggests he’s not confident of winning anytime soon. As for the immediate future, Ukraine will do what he calls “active defense.”
However, his record of military successes to date suggests he has something more ambitious in mind. Syrsky is keeping a low profile. “All I can say is that we are studying the enemy closely. And for every poison there is an antidote.”
This article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Anyone who underestimates Russia is headed for defeat” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.
*The post “Anyone who underestimates Russia must face defeat” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.