The new commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces issued a rallying call in his first public statement after being appointed on Thursday night.
“The lives and health of servicemen have always been and remain the main value of the Ukrainian army,” said Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi on Friday. “Let us unite! Together to Victory!”
But Col-Gen Syrskyi, who replaces the popular General Valeriy Zaluzhny, is likely to face a challenge in winning the support of his troops.
Military sources have expressed dismay and disbelief at President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appointment of a man dubbed “The Butcher” for his alleged willingness to squander the lives of his soldiers in his previous positions, most recently as commander of Ukraine’s ground forces.
That reputation was reinforced by the bloody battle for Bakhmut, where Ukraine took thousands of casualties in a failed defence despite domestic and international pressure to pull out of a city thought to have limited strategic value.
“Warning! Operation ‘Shot in the foot’ started today”, one national guard officer posted online after Mr Zelensky announced the appointment.
Tatarigami, the pseudonym of a Ukrainian military officer and blogger, noted: “The reputation of certain Ukrainian generals has plummeted to the point where they are now likened to Russian counterparts known for deploying careless frontal assaults.”
Tatarigami added that “the replacement of Zaluzhny could have a notably adverse impact on the troops… [he] enjoys a high reputation among soldiers and officers at all levels”.
The Black Flag, a left-wing Ukrainian military collective, posted that Col-Gen Syrskyi “forbade units to withdraw even when there was simply no one left to fight”, and exhausted troops by refusing to allow them to rotate away from the front.
Other military sources pointed to the commander’s background as a Russian speaker who cut his teeth in the Russian Soviet military structure, while his predecessor served only in the post-Soviet Ukrainian system.
Neil Hauer, a Canadian journalist who covered the battle for Bakhmut in the company of Ukrainian soldiers, said they were scathing of their new commander in chief.
“To say that Syrski is disliked by Ukraine’s rank and file would be an understatement,” Mr Hauer told i. “He is reviled for the same sort of Soviet-style inflexibility that characterises many Russian commanders, ordering units to take or hold positions regardless of whether they are defensible or the losses that will be incurred.
“During the battle of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers regularly described his strategy and orders as a death sentence, speaking of him in language they rarely if ever applied to Zaluzhny. It is remarkable and telling that the reaction to his appointment among Ukrainian soldiers and officers has been universal disdain and despair.”
As Ukraine faces increasingly perilous conditions on the battlefield, with dwindling resources to repel Russian advances, Col-Gen Syrskyi will begin the job of trying to secure the country’s survival with little goodwill from his troops.