Russia’s smear campaign against new Ukraine army chief? What Kyiv said

Ukrainian authorities accused Russia of seeking to undermine its new military chief with a spate of media portrayals highlighting the general’s past in Russia as a Soviet officer.

Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, attends an interview.(Reuters)

The coverage of the Ukrainian army chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, is aimed at sowing division within the military and discrediting the general by associating him with his Soviet past and his relatives in Russia, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said on Telegram Monday.

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President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appointed Syrskyi, who led Ukraine’s ground forces in defending Kyiv and reclaiming a swathe of the northeastern Kharkiv region in 2022, to replace his popular top commander, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. As Syrskyi is tasked with gaining widespread trust of Ukrainian soldiers and the public, the council called the media campaign Moscow-backed propaganda.

“Russians are struggling to portray the new commander-in-chief as a Soviet and a Russian,” the council’s disinformation unit said in a statement. “For this purpose they are looking for his relatives in the Russian Federation, ‘family friends,’ getting comments from them and spreading the comments over the information space with a certain context.”

A spokesman for Syrskyi didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The accusation reflects concern that the guilt-by-association line of attack could have an effect on Syrskyi, who lacks a broad public profile in Ukraine compared with the outsize Zaluzhnyi, who had a tense relationship with Zelenskiy. Born in Soviet Russia in 1965, Syrskyi graduated from a military academy in Moscow and speaks Ukrainian with a heavy Russian accent.

Although Ukrainians having relatives in Russia isn’t uncommon, the reports seek to portray an estranged son of the Soviet Union now leading the fight against the country. One report quotes a brother claiming he has no contact with Syrskyi; another purports to quote a military university classmate reminiscing about marching in Red Square past Lenin’s mausoleum with the Ukrainian commander.

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta research institute in Kyiv, said the portrayal also abets critics of Syrskyi within Ukraine with a “handy argument.” Little was said about Syrskyi’s familial ties before his appointment last week, he said.

“It’s a pity, but some supporters of Zaluzhnyi are unintentionally working in unison with Russia’s propaganda, which seeks to split Ukrainian society,” Fesenko said.

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