Oleksandr Syrskyi agreed to become head of the General Staff from the third attempt — in dark times. How a Russian by birth became a Ukrainian by calling — a profile. Part one

Oksana Kovalenko
Glib Gusiev, Kateryna Kobernyk
Oleksandr Syrskyi agreed to become head of the General Staff from the third attempt — in dark times. How a Russian by birth became a Ukrainian by calling — a profile. Part one

Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Army Oleksandr Syrskyi.


Oleksandr Syrskyi became the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on February 8, 2024 — during one of the most difficult stages of the war with Russia. More than a year has passed since the last major Ukrainian victory — the Kharkiv operation. After that was an unsuccessful counteroffensive, bloody battles and retreat from Bakhmut, chronic delays of Western weapons and systemic problems with mobilization. Shortly after the appointment of Syrskyi, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had to leave Avdiivka, a city in the Donetsk region, for which the fighting lasted for two years. Almost all of these victories and defeats were personally contributed by the former commander of the Ground Forces, Syrskyi. People from his close circle say that Syrskyi did not dream of the post of the Commander-in-Chief and twice refused to be promoted — he is more comfortable at the front than at endless meetings in Kyiv. However, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered Syrskyi to head the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the third time, he agreed. Syrskyi has great ambitions, and behind him is a long career as a military. He went through all the steps of this career step by step without skipping a single one. Former teachers and current acquaintances of Syrskyi say that he is neither a star nor a charisma, but a disciplined and systematic commander who loves control and discipline. Syrskyi is praised for successful operations in Kyiv region and Kharkiv region — and called a "butcher" for the heavy losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine near Bakhmut. He himself almost never comments on anything and very rarely communicates with journalists, especially Ukrainian ones. Babel correspondent Oksana Kovalenko began collecting information about Syrskyi shortly after his appointment. In a few months, she talked with his mentors, subordinates, famous commanders, deputies, officials and employees of the Presidentʼs Office, who at various stages worked with him or simply helped him. The opinions of some of them about Syrskyi have changed radically during this time. For example, MP from "Servant of the People" party Maryana Bezuhla first often praised him, but now she criticizes him fiercely and says that Syrskyi is a typical representative of the old inefficient generalship. Which of these is true, how the Russian became one of the most famous generals of Ukraine and what was behind his biggest operations — in the large profile by Babel. Part one.


The whole life of Oleksandr Syrskyi is connected with the war. He was born into a military family, in a small village a few kilometers from the Russian city of Kosterevo in the Vladimir region. In Soviet times, the military unit of the air defense anti-aircraft missile troops was stationed there, and his father Stanislav served in it.

In the 1970s, Stanislav Syrskyi was transferred to Kharkiv, his wife and son moved with him. Oleksandr studied in one of the schools of the Shevchenkivskyi district — it is now particularly often fired upon by the Russians. Inspired by his fatherʼs example, the boy decided to build a career in the army.

Oleksandr Syrskyiʼs parents Lyudmila and Stanislav.


As a gold medalist, according to the quota for excellent students from the Soviet republics, in 1982, Syrskyi entered the Moscow Higher Military Command School (in Russian — MVOKU) — one of the best in the Soviet Union, with a serious technical base and a competition of 10-15 people for a place. "They were always preparing for war there," one of the schoolʼs graduates tells Babel. “So as not to hesitate whether it is worth giving oneʼs life for the Motherland." In the second and third years, Syrskyi, like all cadets, was trained, starting from the lowest tactical ranks, first as a unit commander, then as a platoon commander.

At the same time, Andrei Kartapolov, the future colonel-general of the Russian army, was studying at the school, but a year older. After the start of the war in 2014, Syrskyi will face him more than once on different sides of the front line. Kartapolov — now a member of the State Duma of Russia — told the Russian publication that he studied in the third battalion, and Syrskyi — in the fourth. Their dormitories were across the street, but they did not know each other personally — this is what both Kartapolov and Syrskyi say.

Oleksandr graduated from school in 1986. He received the rank of lieutenant and two specialties — civil (engineer) and military (platoon commander). Graduation at the school has always been a special event — with a line-up on Red Square in Moscow. Since Syrskyi went to study under the Ukrainian SSR quota, he returned here: in 1986, he began serving as the commander of a motorized rifle platoon in Lubny, Poltava region. His family — parents and younger brother — moved first to Kosterevo, and then to Vladimir, where they still live.

Badge of a graduate of the Moscow Higher Military Command School.


Before the declaration of Ukraineʼs independence, Oleksandr went to visit his parents from time to time. But in 1991, he took the oath of a Ukrainian military serviceman and no longer visited his relatives, except for his grandmotherʼs funeral in 2000. He considers Ukraine to be his homeland, says one of his friends. "The most important thing for him is the oath. As the son of a military man, it is embedded in his DNA," says Babelʼs interlocutor from Syrskyiʼs entourage.


The year Ukraine became independent, Oleksandr Syrskyi turned 26. Over the next twenty years — from President Leonid Kravchuk to President Victor Yanukovych — he slowly but surely climbed the ranks in the Defense Forces and became a witness and direct participant in several significant transformations of the Ukrainian military.

In the nineties, his life was connected with the National Guard of Ukraine (NGU), a new military formation created by the Verkhovna Rada in 1991. The former Soviet motorized rifle division was transferred to the NGU, which a year before had been withdrawn from the territory of Czechoslovakia to a military town in the Kharkiv region and named the "6th Eastern". Oleksandr Syrskyi became the battalion commander of this division. Later, after training at the tactical and operational level courses at the Armed Forces Academy in Kyiv, he returned to his division as a regimental commander.

Oleksandr Syrskyiʼs path in the Ukrainian Armed Forces until 2014

  1. Battalion commander of the 17th regiment of the 6th division of the National Guard of Ukraine.

  2. Chief of staff of the educational regiment of NGU.

  3. Commander of the 19th regiment of the 6th division of the NGU.

  4. Chief of Staff of the 72nd Mechanized Division of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

  5. Commander of the 72nd separate mechanized brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (created on the basis of the division).

  6. Head of the Operations Planning Department of the Joint Operational Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

  7. The chief of staff is the first deputy commander of the Joint Operational Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

  8. First Deputy Head of the Department of International Cooperation of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

  9. The first deputy head of the Main Command Center of the GS.

Oleksandr Syrskyi entered the Academy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 1996. Ostap Sapsa, the head of its operational-tactical department at the time, recalls that Syrskyi did not particularly stand out against the general background. "More than 400 officers studied at the faculty," he says. “I knew the excellent students well and, of course, dealt with slackers. Syrskyi was somewhere in the middle: quiet, modest, petite." However, persistence and good mentors did the trick.

"He came under the command of wise and humane commanders," says Sapsa. "If you are a hard worker, a capable organizer, well-mannered, and respect your subordinates in a humane way, then your service will be successful."

Anatoliy Hryshchuk, deputy head of the operational-tactical faculty, characterizes Oleksandr Syrskyi in a similar way. "This is a person with a mathematical mindset," he says. “I would call him "the chess player". At operational-tactical exercises, he always calculated several options for the development of events. He is a tough commander, this was [also] visible during the exercises. He monitors how his decisions are implemented and can intervene if something doesnʼt go according to plan."

Oleksandr Syrskyi graduated from the Armed Forces Academy in 1998 with honors. Hryshchuk was sure that he would go into science, get a doctorate and teach. But after graduation, Syrskyi returned to his division.

During his service in the Kharkiv region, Syrskyi met his first wife, Alla. By then, Alla already had a son, Ihor. Another son, Anton, was born in marriage with Oleksandr. Both bear the surname Syrskyi, although Oleksandr did not adopt Ihor — he himself took the surname that the whole family bore.

Oleksandr Syrskyiʼs first marriage broke up in 2009. He doesnʼt like to talk about it, says his friend Pavlo Zhebrivskyi. The very next year, Alla went to Australia with both sons. Ihorʼs critical posts about Ukraine can be found on social networks. It is him in 2024 that the Russian propaganda media will show as the "son of the Commander-in-Chief" who supports Putin. "I think this is a cut off period of his life," says Zhebrivskyi. He is one of the few with whom Syrskyi talked about personal matters.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, President Leonid Kuchma decided to reform the Ukrainian army. It had to become mobile, compact in number, but well-equipped and combat-ready. In 2000, the president disbanded the National Guard. Its units, equipment, and weapons were handed over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, including Syrskyiʼs "native" 6th Division of the NGU.

In the same year, Oleksandr Syrskyi assumed the post of Chief of Staff of the 72nd Mechanized Division of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Under him, the division was reduced and re-formed into the 72nd separate mechanized brigade. It joined the Rapid Response Force — and had to solve tasks that unexpectedly arose in different regions. In two years, Syrskyi became a brigade commander. According to one of the generals who served with Syrskyi in various positions, the brigade constantly trained under his leadership. "Oleksandr hung around the training grounds, preparing the brigade," he says. Another Babel interlocutor, familiar with the work of the brigade at that time, says that when Syrskyi left the brigade in 2005, it was one of the best.

A year later, Colonel Syrskyi returned to study at the university he knew. In 2006, he graduated from the operational and strategic faculty with honors. The next step was a new body of military management — the Joint Operational Command of the Armed Forces.

The JOC was supposed to give impetus to the new reform of the Ukrainian army — to bring it closer to NATO standards. Back in April 2005, the new president, Viktor Yushchenko, returned to the countryʼs military doctrine a mention of the strategic goal of "full membership in NATO and the European Union." In 2006, the country applied for membership in the Alliance. According to its standards, JOC was immediately created. Syrskyi headed the operations planning department, and within a year he became the chief of staff — the first deputy commander. At that time, Ukraine participated in peacekeeping missions in various countries.

Oleksandr Syrskyi visits Ukrainian helicopters who served in Liberia as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, 2010.

Oleksandr Syrskyi visits Ukrainian helicopters who served in Liberia as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, 2010.


Until 2009, Syrskyi often communicated with Alliance officers. He noticed that NATO generals, despite their age, maintain good physical shape. "I think he was impressed by it," says an official who has worked with Syrskyi for the past few years. “He runs 10 kilometers every day, and wherever he is stationed, in the rest room, where others usually have a sofa, Syrskyi has exercise machines on which he works out. They were even at the headquarters during the defense of Kyiv."

In 2010, another presidential election was held in Ukraine, which was won by Viktor Yanukovych. His appointed Mykhailo Yezhel Minister of Defense and Hryhoriy Pedchenko as Chief of the General Staff. They liquidated the JOC in 2011, and all his work on the transition to NATO standards was buried. Syrskyi was appointed to the General Staff as the first deputy head of the international cooperation department, and in 2012 he was transferred to the Main Command Center of the General Staff. This center did not plan operations and did not manage troops, it was engaged in paper work: collected information about the state of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and issued an analytical bulletin.


In February 2014, Russia seized Crimea and subsequently started a war in eastern Ukraine. In April of the same year acting President Oleksandr Turchynov launched an anti-terrorist operation (ATO). Oleksandr Syrskyi was immediately sent to the east of Ukraine as the deputy commander of the ATO, Serhiy Popko. In just a few months, he became the first deputy and headed the ATO headquarters. During the time when Syrskyi was in the east, the fiercest battles took place. The call sign "Bars" was fixed behind him. Later, Syrskyi told journalists that he likes this animal, because "he is not afraid to engage in battle with an opponent who is bigger in weight and stronger than him."

The composite tactical group commanded by Oleksandr Syrskyi at the Debaltseve bridgehead in February 2015 during the Russian offensive also received the name "Bars". He ended up in Debaltseve on January 28. To understand the situation, he was sent there by the then Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko, who received conflicting messages from the sector headquarters.

Syrskyi in the Debaltseve region in the winter of 2015.

Syrskyi in the Debaltseve region in the winter of 2015.


The city of Debaltseve, an important railway junction, was under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in January 2015, but was surrounded on three sides. There were about 5,200 Ukrainian military personnel in the area of the Debaltseve salient. The Ukrainian forces consisted of dozens of separate battalions and brigades, including the 128th separate brigade commanded by Serhiy Shaptala. Colonel Victor Taran, head of sector "C", was responsible for the defense of the line. The Russian offensive on Debaltseve was coordinated by Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, the same one who thirty years ago studied with Oleksandr Syrskyi at the same university. That was the first time they physically found themselves on different sides of the front.

According to Syrskyi, upon arriving at the scene, he found out that the head of sector "C" made critical mistakes: the possible actions of the enemy werenʼt calculated, the forces of one of the brigades were scattered, and did not sufficiently protect the small town of Vuhlehirsk west of Debaltseve. Syrskyi ordered to strengthen the defense of the city, properly equip fire lines and form reserves. The Russians were several hours ahead of him — they stormed Vuhlehirsk and captured it.

For the next three weeks, Syrskyi worked in the sector (only once did he go back to Kramatorsk on Muzhenkoʼs order). He was not responsible for the defense of Debaltseve, but developed some operations and managed individual units. He tried to recapture Vuhlehirsk with small forces, and although he failed to do so, on February 1 he unblocked the units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and artillerymen, who spent three days surrounded there. Once again, the units under his command unblocked Ukrainian fighters on February 6, already in a different direction.

The Russian offensive on Debaltseve violated the so-called Minsk Protocol (Minsk-1) on the ceasefire and caused a diplomatic crisis in Europe. And on February 11, new negotiations of the "Normandy Four" began in Minsk — the presidents of Ukraine, France, the Russian Federation and the Chancellor of Germany. Putin was sure that the forces under his control would encircle Ukrainian units before the start of the negotiations — and tried to use this to push through his scenario for resolving the conflict (in essence, to achieve the political capitulation of Ukraine).

"Normandy Four" during negotiations in Minsk in February 2015.


During the negotiations in Minsk, in order to find out the situation at the Debaltseve bridgehead, President Petro Poroshenko called the Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko, and he called Syrskyi. The situation was difficult. The day before, on February 9, the enemy captured Lohvynove, a key village on the only road to Debaltseve. On February 10, units under the command of Sirsky tried to recapture the village, but failed. Syrskyi had to organize convoys with ammunition, fuel and food along the new "road of life" — bypassing Lohvynove.

At the negotiations, Petro Poroshenko needed a trump card — reliable proof that Debaltseve is not surrounded. To do this, Syrskyi sent an officer — the deputy commander from the rear of the 40th separate battalion, who had just arrived from Debaltseve, back to the city — to take a fresh picture against the background of the main post office. Poroshenko presented this photo at the negotiations. After that, Kartapolov called the head of the General Staff Muzhenko. He tried to convince him that the Ukrainian units in the Debaltseve salient were completely surrounded, and the commanders there were lying. Muzhenko objected: ten minutes before the conversation, the wounded were taken out of Debaltseve, and ammunition was brought there. The tone of the conversation has changed, as has the tone of the negotiations in Minsk. In the end, representatives of Ukraine and Russia signed another ceasefire agreement (Minsk-2).

Exit of the Ukrainian military from Debaltseve in February 2015.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

However, Russia did not stop the offensive on Debaltseve, and within a few days the Ukrainian command decided to withdraw troops from the city. Viktor Muzhenko and the commander of the 128th brigade Serhii Shaptala developed an exit plan. With the forces of the "Bars" tactical group, Syrskyi was supposed to ensure the exit of the brigade from the outskirts of Debaltseve — to cover its flanks and support the rearguards with fire. To do this, he held two commanding heights until the Ukrainian forces were fully withdrawn. Syrskyi later told his colleague at the headquarters of the ATO that a few months after leaving Debaltseve, he has dreams about the road that everyone used to escape.


In 2016, Syrskyi returned from the east to Kyiv and headed the Joint Operational Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine — a new management body for the Ukrainian Defense Forces. A major defense reform was beginning in Ukraine: a new procurement system, new medicine, new logistics, new types of troops, new positions were to appear; the standards of the Ukrainian Armed Forces were to be brought up to NATO standards. Syrskyi in one of the working groups dealt with the issue of changing the structure of the General Staff. One of the members of this group in a comment to Babel says: Syrskyi was "very literate and knowledgeable, but absolutely not public and not charismatic." It was difficult for him to speak in front of the public. "Besides, he speaks very succinctly — it will not be possible to hold conversations for two hours and pour from empty to empty", — recalls the interlocutor. The fact that Syrskyi is a reserved person is said by everyone with whom Babel talked about him.

At that time, Maryana Bezuhla met Syrskyi — she worked in the Project Office of Reforms under the Ministry of Defense and was involved in the reform of the medical sector. She talked with Syrskyi about sending medics for training. "Syrskyi was then more modern than many other generals," Bezuhla recalls.

In 2017, Syrskyi headed the Anti-Terrorist Operation, which was later reformatted into the Joint Forces Operation (JFO). He paid a lot of attention to the conditions in which the military lived and combat readiness. Pavlo Zhebrivskyi, the then head of the Donetsk military-civilian administration, recalled in a conversation with Babel that he was the first to conduct training directly in the ATO zone. "During the time I was in charge of the Donetsk region, eight commanders of the ATO and JFO changed," he says. “Syrskyi was the only one on the front line, at all platoon strongholds personally. Not every combatant did that." According to Zhebrivskyi, the commander was harsh and uncompromising, demanding unconditional execution of orders.

Syrskyi and Pavlo Zhebrivskyi, head of the Donetsk military-civilian administration in Donetsk region.


Syrskyi introduced weekly meetings of the heads of the ATO and regional administrations. The latter ones helped the military build fortifications and equip training grounds, and also solved housing problems. Zhebrivskyi and Syrskyi not only worked together, but also sometimes went fishing. So Zhebrivskyi became one of the few who talked to Syrskyi about his family.

Syrskyi married a second time — to Tamara Kharchenko, who worked as a chief inspector in the State Customs Service. In 2018, they had a son, Oleksandr. "He talks about his wife and son with great warmth," says Zhebrivskyi, "But you wonʼt find a photo of him with his family anywhere, he doesnʼt need this publicity."

Syrskyi with his second wife Tamara.



In May 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy became the President of Ukraine and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. On the same day, he appointed Ruslan Khomchak as the new Commander-in-Chief and Chief of the General Staff. In August, Syrskyi received the position of commander of the Ground Forces. According to tradition, he also became the commander of the Kyiv garrison, and on August 23 he received a new rank — colonel general.

In July 2021, the president dismissed Defense Minister Andriy Taran and Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak, who had been in conflict for a long time. When the conflict came out, it became clear that after many years of reform of the Ukrainian Defense Forces, the powers of the Commander-in-Chief and the head of the Ukrainian Defense Forces were still not sufficiently clearly defined in the Ukrainian legislation.

Then Syrskyi was first offered to become the CinC. He refused because of good relations with Khomchak. "I will not take a living place," he explained his decision to an acquaintance, who recounted the conversation to Babel.

Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak and Commander of the Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi, July 2019.

The interlocutor of Babel in the Servant of the People party says: at that time, the deputy head of the Office of the President Roman Mashovets and the adviser of the Office of the President Oleksiy Arestovych proposed to appoint to the commander positions young officers who were educated in independent Ukraine, and not in Soviet times — Syrskyi was threatened dismissal. He was saved by the president, who saw Syrskyi in Donbas and was impressed by his work. Syrskyi remained in office. (Babel contacted Roman Mashovets for a comment, but didnʼt receive a response.)

The president appointed Valeriy Zaluzhny as the new Commander-in-Chief. Until that moment, he commanded the "North" Operational Command and was subordinate to the commander of the Ground Forces. This is how Syrskyiʼs former subordinate became his manager.

Commander of the Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi together with Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, his deputy Yevhen Moysiuk, Commander of the Naval Forces Oleksiy Neizhpapa during preparations for the parade, August 2021.

In the fall of 2021, foreign intelligence started speaking of a possible major Russian offensive against Ukraine. Zelenskyiʼs team publicly denied this information. The military believed that the escalation could be in the east of the country — almost no one believed in a frontal attack on Kyiv. Despite this, the team of the then Commander-in-Chief told Babel that several defense options were being developed in the General Staff. At the beginning of the fall of 2021, a group was created to protect Kyiv. Zaluzhnyi appointed Syrskyi as its leader. In December 2021, he inspected the 72nd brigade, which was based in the Kyiv region, and also went to the Luch construction bureau to personally get acquainted with the latest developments in technology.

Syrskyi in Luch.

At the beginning of February 2022, the 72nd brigade was directly subordinated to Syrskyi. The task was specific — to defend Kyiv in the event of an invasion, then-brigadier general Oleksandr Vdovychenko told Radio Svoboda journalists.

A few days before the full-scale invasion, a large meeting was held in Kyiv. It was attended by representatives of the central government, regional and local councils, and the military, including Syrskyi. Everything that happened there was classified as "completely secret". Among other things, the participants discussed whether to deploy the Territorial Defense Forces. "At the meeting, there were different opinions about further possible scenarios. The military did not see the Russians deploying for a full-scale offensive. As it turned out later, they didnʼt do everything according to the rules — they went in a straight column," recalls one of the participants of the meeting, the then head of the Kyiv region Oleksiy Kuleba. Later, Syrskyi himself told The Washington Post: "Whether I believed it or not, it doesnʼt matter. I did what I had to do."

Three days before the full-scale invasion, on February 21, the 72nd Brigade received the task of "advancing to Kyiv" — to defend the capital. The main blow was expected from the Chernihiv direction, so part of the 72nd and the units attached to it took up the defense there. Only the infantry of the second battalion entered the other flank — the right-bank part. Syrskyi also ordered the artillery to be transferred closer to the capital, and the aviation to be sent to reserve airfields. It was obvious that in the event of an attack, the enemy would target military aircraft.

On the night of February 24, Ukrainians heard the first explosions — Russia began a full-scale invasion, including in the direction of Kyiv. Syrskyi recruited the brigade commander of the 72nd brigade, who remained in Bila Tserkva, and ordered to personally advance to Kyiv. The equipment of the brigade was transferred to the capital by rail. And the tank battalion, artillery and support units went on their own.

After the conversation with Vdovychenko, Syrskyi appeared in the Kyiv City Hall and established a connection with the head of the Kyiv region, Kuleba. After that, he introduced morning general meetings of the military with officials of Kyiv and the region.

"When the [full-fledged Russian] aggression began, I had the feeling that I was entering an abyss that has no clear time limits. I understood that it would be long and difficult," said Syrskyi in an interview with ZDF.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Read the second part of the story here.