Today's D Brief: Ukraine’s new military chief; Putin’s meandering mind; Psyops on the chopping block?; Army cancels scout helo; And just a bit more.

Ukraine’s military has a new approach to 2024, and a new top officer. The dismissal of Gen. Valerii Zaluzhny was formally announced Thursday by President Volodymir Zelenskyy, nearly two weeks after news outlets first reported the imminent shake up. 

The new commander-in-chief is Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, and he’s “credited with some of the important battlefield successes since Russia’s full-scale invasion, but is also associated with perhaps its biggest blunder—the costly defense of Bakhmut,” Chris Miller of the Financial Times reported Thursday. 

Zelenskyy announced the change of leadership as part of a broader slate of reforms he’s hoping will rejuvenate a lagging defense against Russia’s nearly two-year-long invasion while additional U.S. support remains blocked by House Republicans. Zelenskyy’s outline can be viewed as a new strategy for the calendar year, said retired Australian two-star general Mick Ryan, who has been closely watching this conflict since early 2022. “Balancing defensive and offensive operations as well as reconstituting the force, is a big task” for the year ahead, Ryan said. 

He also launched a new branch of the military dedicated entirely to drone warfare. It’s known as the Unmanned Systems Forces. “Ukraine has truly changed the security situation in the Black Sea with the help of drones,” he said in a national address Tuesday. 

“Repelling ground assaults is primarily the task of drones. The large-scale destruction of the occupiers and their equipment is also the domain of drones,” he said. “This is not a matter of the future, but something that should yield a very concrete result shortly,” he vowed. But it will require significant work to marshall the necessary personnel and resources, as well as training regimen, “systematization of experience, constant scaling of production, and the involvement of the best ideas and top specialists in this field,” he said, and promised to appoint a commander soon. 

“We have to be honest,” Zelenskyy explained in his Thursday remarks after relieving Zaluzhny, “Ukrainians are speaking of victory less often,” and “The feeling of stagnation specifically in the southern directions and the difficulties in the battles in the Donetsk region have affected the public mood,” he said. And that’s partly why he said, “The generalship must be reset.” 

He also vowed to improve the rotation process for frontline troops. This is because, as he explained, “The Ukrainian Defense Forces are now almost a million people,” but “the majority of them have not felt the frontline in the same way as the minority who are actually at the forefront, actually fighting.” (Some troops inside the embattled city of Avdiivka recently complained of exhaustion to the Washington Post, saying many had been suffering intense bombardment for 10 consecutive days as opposed to the recommended three.)

Zelenskyy wants fewer troops at headquarters units, describing current staffing as “excessive and unjustified.” And he wants improved logistics networks for the military—complaining, for example, that “Avdiivka must not wait for the generals to find out which warehouses the drones are stuck in.”

“The year 2024 can be a successful one for Ukraine only if effective changes are made in the core of our defense,” the president said in his nationwide address Thursday. Several other units could see command shake-ups, as the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote in its Thursday evening assessment, which also reminded readers, “Command changes are normal for a state fighting a war over several years.” 

Developing: Is the Russian military using Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet inside occupied Ukraine? A Ukrainian journalist suggested as much this week, and Starlink’s parent company, SpaceX, attempted to dispel the issue on social media Thursday—but instead the company’s lengthy reply appeared to dodge the allegation. Defense One’s Sam Skove will have more on this story a bit later today…

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1991, citizens in Lithuania voted overwhelmingly to breakaway from the Soviet Union, further cementing the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War. 

To defend his Ukraine invasion, Russian leader Vladimir Putin repeated a now-typical series of false claims in an interview this week with American right-wing propagandist and former Fox pundit Tucker Carlson—whose very first question elicited a rambling, 30-minute lecture on 17th-century pseudo-Russian history from the former taxi driver currently in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. 

Topline takeaway: “Putin illustrated throughout the interview that Russia has no interest in meaningful or legitimate negotiations” to end the Ukraine invasion, “and that Putin still seeks to destroy Ukraine as a state,” analysts at ISW summarized after watching the full two-hour exchange with Carlson. “Putin also displayed his overarching hostility towards the West and falsely accused the West of forcing Russia to attack Ukraine,” ISW wrote. 

Putin also “repeated tired Russian rhetoric presenting Russia’s annexation of Crimea…and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as a defensive campaign aimed at protecting Russian people and the Russia nation,” ISW writes. “This ongoing information operation is meant to obfuscate the obvious fact that Russia launched a war of aggression against its neighbor in 2022 in order to confuse Western memories of what actually happened,” the think tank warns. 

He again said (incorrectly) that Ukraine’s president supports a Nazi ideology that must be crushed by Russia, and again alleged that a U.S.-backed “coup” in Ukraine in 2014 forced Russia to invade Crimea that same year. There are many more false characterizations from Putin listed by ISW, and you read over those beginning in the fourth paragraph from the top, here

A second opinion: Putin’s answers were only surprising insofar as there were no surprises, said Mark Galeotti of the British Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, in a radio interview Thursday with The Monocle. 

“We had all the familiar Putin tropes,” and “in some ways it’s very hard to pick a theme, because the honest answer is it’s the usual stuff,” said Galeotti. “The interesting thing is that precisely for once, he actually chose to present the usual stuff to a Western—I wouldn’t really say ‘journalist,’ let’s say ‘TV personality’ rather than his usual stable of interviewers.” Listen to the rest of Galeotti’s feedback, here

Read more: 

Army axes planned scout helo as part of an aviation-acquisition shakeup. After consuming nearly $2 billion, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program was canceled to “meet emerging capability requirements in a resource constrained environment,” Army officials said in a press release. “Army leaders assessed that the increased capabilities [FARA] offered could be more affordably and effectively achieved by relying on a mix of enduring, unmanned, and space-based assets.”

FARA, which the Army once called its top aviation priority and its No. 3 acquisition priority overall, was supposed to fill the hole left when the OH-64 Kiowa was retired in 2020. D1’s Sam Skove reports. The release also announced:

  • The coming retirement of the nearly-two-decade-old Shadow and Raven drones
  • Ending production of the UH-60V version of the Blackhawk helicopter due to cost growth
  • Committing to a multi-year contract for the UH-60M Blackhawk.
  • Formally beginning production of the CH-47F Block II Chinook. 

The Army, of course, has canceled quite a few programs in recent decades after spending multiple billions on them, and FARA’s demise is drawing wags’ attention.