Wrecked Syria, Now Leads Russia’s Attack on Ukraine: Who Is General Surovikin?

Surovikin's colleagues call him “General Armageddon” for his hardline and unorthodox methods of waging war.

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President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, 8 October, appointed General Sergey Surovikin to lead Russia’s war effort in Ukraine amid a series of military setbacks, growing discontent within the country over the invasion and Putin losing his iron fist grip on the Russian offensive.

While the world had expected a severe Russian response following the explosion at the Crimean Bridge that caused its partial collapse, Monday’s bombing of the Ukrainian capital bore all the hallmark of General Surovikin.

A military veteran who served in the Soviet Union’s doomed war with Afghanistan in the 1980s, General Surovikin was accused of complicity during the indiscriminate bombing of “enemy” fighter jets and overseeing massive chemical attacks in Syria, during a campaign that was pivotal to help the Syrian government regain control over most of the country.

But the General’s appointment is significant, not only because of the Ukraine’s counteroffensive, but also because of Putin’s growing problems within the Kremlin.


Reputation for Ruthlessness

In the Russian military, Surovikin has a reputation of being ruthless. His colleagues call him “General Armageddon” for his hardline and unorthodox methods of waging war.

His “defence” of Moscow’s apparent interests in Syria involved dozens of ground and air strikes on civilians and infrastructure, a 2020 Human Rights Watch reports said.

Surovikin’s Russian forces struck homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – essentially the places where people live and work.

On Monday morning, two days after being appointed as the first overall commander of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, Surovikin was quick to bring his violent Syria playbook to Kyiv, with a barrage of “precision missile strikes” against civilian targets, which included major road junctions near a university and a children’s playground in a park.

A a former defence ministry official who has worked with the general said, “I am not surprised to see what is happening this morning in Kyiv. Surovikin is absolutely ruthless with little disregard for human life.”

“I am afraid his hands will be completely covered in Ukrainian blood,” the official told The Guardian.

Surovikin first gained notoriety during the 1991 attempted coup d’état by Soviet hardliners where he led a rifle division through barricades placed by pro-democracy protestors, killing three men in the clash, while one was run over.

His merciless reputation only grew when in 2004, Russian media reported that a colonel serving under him had taken his own life after he received a reprimand from General Surovikin.

He made a stellar career in the upper echelons of the Russian General barracks and defence ministry after the radical military reforms in 2008 that demanded ruthlessness from Russian generals.


Curious Timing

The timing of General’s appointment is significant not for one, but two separate reasons.

Firstly, Surovikin’s appointment comes as Putin sacked two senior Russian military commanders after Kyiv won back territories it lost to Moscow in the northeast and south of Ukraine.

Kyiv drove out Russian forces from much of the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September through a counteroffensive which ended with Ukraine retaking thousands of square kilometres of their territory.

Moreover, on Saturday, a Kremlin-installed official in Kherson announced partial evacuation of civilians from the southern province.

It also comes as Moscow has suffered embarrassment after the partial destruction of the Kerch Strait Bridge – an emotionally and strategically significant link between between Russia and Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014.

Secondly, the General’s appointment is also the first as an overall battlefield commander of Russian military forces in Ukraine.

Experts quoted by both The Guardian and Al Jazeera believe that the appointment may indicate that Moscow finally understands the overhanging risk of military collapse in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces advancing in all four of Putin’s ceremoniously “annexed” regions.


Silencing Critics

The appointment is suggestive of the fact that Putin wants to silence anger from Russian hardliners who have often accused him of being unable to wage an all-out war against Kyiv.

Cadres of Russian war pundits have grown critical lately, but were pretty happy to see Russian-launched missiles plunge into the heart of Kyiv, causing widespread damage and killing scores of innocent men, women, and children.

However, Surovikin’s appointment has softened some of the public anger, especially among Russian hardliners, who were growing increasingly impatient with Putin’s growing military failures.

Military analyst Forbes McKenzie told Sky News:

"The nationalistic supporters that Putin enjoys a pretty strong power base from are asking him to go further than he has so far.”

"A way to signal that is by essentially saying, 'you've asked me to go further. Now I've got the top man for the job, someone who's shown he is capable of that, in Surovikin’,” he added.

Russia knows that Surovikin is a savage, and notorious for shooting protestors and using chemical weapons in Syria. This sends out a clear signal to the war-hardline and increases intimidation as well.


Power Struggle

An important factor in the appointment of General Surovikin is its likely affect on the power struggle around the Kremlin since the launch of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

Surovikin is seen as a strong ally of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner Group, which has been reportedly fighting the war for Russia in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Prigozhin has been among the staunchest and most hawkish critics of Russia’s defence ministry while he constantly demanded military escalation from Moscow.

Over the weekend, Prigozhin gave the general a thumbs up on his Telegram channel, a much larger sense of approval that comes as a sign of relief for the Kremlin.

But moreover, an indication that the appointment is also Putin consolidating power among various branches of the Kremlin.

In a rather rare public statement, Prigozhin called Sirovikin “a legendary person.”

“Surovikin is the most competent commander in the Russian army”, he added, according to news agency Live24.

(With inputs from The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Live24, and Sky News)

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Topics:  Russia   Russia Ukraine War 

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