Change at the top of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

(To Renato Caputo)

Replacing a general in a key position is, without a doubt, more complicated than replacing one weapons system with another. It is a choice that can have important repercussions on the overall picture of military operations.

Starting from the second half of 2023, most of the forecasts formulated on the development of the war in Ukraine predicted its transition to a new phase that would last at least until 2025. However, in order to bring about a change of pace, the 8 February 2024, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made one of the most important decisions in the country's history since the start of the large-scale Russian invasion. He replaced General Valerii Zalyzhnyi with General Oleksandr Surskyi as Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

In the current phase of the war, the role of the infantry becomes fundamental, as does its ability to carry out assault operations, use modern weapons - especially those supplied by NATO countries - and conduct tactical maneuvers. 

Since 2019, Surskyi was in charge of the ground forces, having good knowledge of their specifics and combat potential for the liberation of Ukrainian territory.

“By appointing Surskyi commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Zelenskyy wants to see a transition towards increased activity, to establish a new dynamic for offensive actions”, says political scientist Anatoliy Oktysyuk.

Any offensive action, compared to a defensive one, usually involves more risks. The leaders of the armed forces of NATO countries have called for strategic defense, but this would prolong the war. To give an example, the defense strategy developed for Ukraine by the Ministry of Defense of Estonia envisaged three years for the liberation of the country's territory. Zelenskyy decided that such a time frame was excessively long.

“The year 2024 can see Ukraine's success only under the condition of effective changes in the foundation of our defense, which is the Ukrainian Armed Forces”, Zelenskyy himself explained, adding: “I want the vision of war to be the same for our soldiers in Robotyn or Avdiivka, and for the Chief of Staff.”

Choosing Surskyi, Zelenskyy explained the main strengths of this military leader: he has successful experience in planning and executing defensive operations (the battle for Kyiv) and implementing counteroffensive actions (the liberation of the Kharkiv region) . Surskyi's experience is, however, much broader. With the start of hostilities in Donbas in 2014, he headed the headquarters of the anti-terrorist operation and organized the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the city of Debaltseve in the Donetsk region, later earning the first order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, later becoming knight of all three degrees. The defense of Kyiv earned General Surskyi the Hero of Ukraine star.

“Surskyi is not a beginner, he is an experienced officer who knows what to do and how to do it”, explains political scientist Oktysiuk. "He knows the internal functioning of the ground forces very well, he personally knows the leaders of the brigades and knows how to move the front". However, one should not expect high public activity from the new commander-in-chief of the armed forces: "he is more comfortable in the environment of professional communication with the military and not in the environment of press conferences and briefings", believes the expert. "Surskyi will most likely delegate international negotiations to Defense Minister Rustem Umerov", adds Oktysiuk.

It is obvious that Surskyi has a different style than his predecessor Zalyzhnyi. First, the new commander in chief has a higher risk tolerance. Secondly, he received his first military education at the higher command school of Moscow, therefore he understands very well the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian army, its tactical and maneuver potential, the way of thinking of Russian generals. Thirdly, General Surskyi is closer to classical military than to experimental ones.

Another reason for Surskyi's appointment to the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces is his favorable view of tactical interaction between infantry and aviation. This is more than relevant, because this year Ukraine awaits the opportunity to use F-16 fighters, the best qualities of which should be linked to the real capabilities of the ground forces. Furthermore, the government has promised thousands of Ukrainian-made drones, and these must also be included in both the defense and attack potential of the Ukrainian army.

However, Surskyi examines this topic more broadly. In a January commentary for the Reuters agency, he outlined a whole arsenal of air assets capable of changing the trajectory of hostilities in Ukrainian interests: American A-10 attack aircraft, AH-64 attack helicopters Apache, AH-1 Super Cobra and UH-60 "Black Hawk". “The A-10 will provide decisive support to ground troops, because these aircraft are designed to destroy ground targets: tanks, artillery”, the general then noted.

Such equipment could significantly strengthen Ukraine's military potential. "The A-10 is a front-line attack aircraft capable of supporting ground forces", explains Mykola Sunhurovskyi, director of military programs at the Razumkov Center. This is a completely different capability than F-16 fighters, and we need not only fighters, but also attack aircraft.

This is important, because if the Ukrainian political-military leadership does not offer its partners from the NATO bloc its own program for the use of weapons and military equipment, the Armed Forces risk receiving those technological solutions that do not fully meet the real needs of the Village.

On the issue of the use of weapons and technology, Surskyi promised to carry forward the best ideas and work of Zalyzhnyi, whose popularity made his replacement rather painful news for many in Ukraine. Among his priorities, the new commander in chief of the Armed Forces has named:

  • Planning clear and detailed actions of all bodies of the military administration, taking into account the needs of the front with the latest weapons of Ukrainian partners;
  • The fastest and most rational distribution and delivery of everything necessary for combat units was and remains the main task of the military logistics;
  • Introduction of new technical solutions, including unmanned systems and electronic warfare assets;
  • Life and health of the military they have always been and are the main value of the Ukrainian army.

Even in the West there is talk of the need to attract new ideas and approaches to planning the combat work of the Armed Forces. Thus, American military expert Mark Hertling, who regularly comments on events in Ukraine for US TV, noted that General Zalyzhnyi was noticeably exhausted during almost two years of extensive war.

"Troop commanders have the ability to sleep only a few hours a day, while facing problems for which there is no solution", Hertling added.

Ukraine's main partner countries have already expressed their willingness to cooperate with General Surskyi. It couldn't be otherwise, of course, but the nuances are important here. The Pentagon stated that Surskyi is not new to them, because American military strategists already have experience of working with him, so we will have continuity along the main line of international cooperation, which is the Ukrainian-American partnership. And Surskyi had his first meeting with Carsten Breuer, inspector general of the German Armed Forces, another extremely important strategic partner of Ukraine.

Ukraine must fight taking into account the military aid programs that the West can offer: this is why Surskyi's position and its practical results will be studied in detail in the West. "Most of the West's political decisions depend on our successes: the greater the successes, the more active the aid will be", explains military expert Sunhurovskyi. But Ukraine has the final say in planning a winning strategy. By appointing Surskyi, President Zelenskyy wanted to demonstrate this, as he does not like the pessimistic forecasts currently circulating in the international press.

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