A New General Takes Over as Ukraine Struggles on the Battlefield

Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, who was appointed commander of the Ukrainian military on Thursday, led two successful counteroffensives in the war against Russia before his troops became bogged down in one of the most contentious and costly battles of the conflict.

It was a strung-out, vicious spell of urban combat in the eastern city of Bakhmut last winter, and even as Ukraine was clearly losing ground in the fight, General Syrsky, then commander of the ground forces, had argued that the decision to defend was sound since Russia was losing more soldiers than Ukraine.

Ukraine maintained what military parlance calls a favorable attrition ratio in the Bakhmut street fighting, but it did little to win backers for the general’s strategy among rank-and-file soldiers. Bakhmut ultimately fell, after Ukraine had lost thousands of troops in the grinding fight.

The nickname “the Butcher” for General Syrsky is now widespread in Ukraine’s Army.

In the two earlier successful battles — in the defense of the capital, Kyiv, and in the northern Kharkiv region — General Syrsky’s soldiers had turned to small-unit tactics and rapid maneuvers to defeat the larger, better armed Russian forces. But it was his willingness to engage in attritional warfare over Bakhmut, however much the ratio of losses favored Ukraine, that drew criticism from the United States and that has hung over the general’s reputation in the Ukrainian Army.

General Syrsky is assuming command of the military after the front line has hardened, as rapid advances by Ukraine’s troops seem a distant prospect, amid deep uncertainty over the future of military aid from the country’s most important ally, the United States, and as a plan to mobilize more soldiers in Ukraine has stalled, complicating military planning.

General Syrsky directed the controversial defense of Bakhmut, seen here last May, which devastated the city and cost thousands of lives.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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