Sergei Surovikin, Russian warlord in Ukraine, known for his brutality in Syria

The Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities Monday, which President Vladimir Putin said was aimed at ‘energy, military command and communication facilities’, also hit downtown streets, a playground and residential areas, looking starkly military-style Russia’s brutally blind in Syria, where the new commander in chief of the Kremlin war against Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, has risen to prominence.

It is unclear whether Monday’s barrage, which continued to a lesser extent on Tuesday, marked a change in tactics that will characterize the war for months to come.

But Surovikin, whose appointment has been announced by the Russian Ministry of Defense on Saturday, is most certainly fraught with changing results on the battlefield, where Russian forces have suffered a series of setbacksincluding a near-total rout in the northeast region of Kharkiv and territorial losses in all areas that Putin has decreed annexed in violation of international law.

Surovikin, 56, who has earned the nickname “General Armageddon” in Syria, is the first overall commander of the assault in Ukraine to be publicly appointed by the Russian government.

The announcement coincided with the explosion on the Crimean bridgea monument to Moscow’s 2014 Crimean Peninsula land grab and a pet project for Putin that served as Russia’s vital conduit to the battlefield for troops, weapons, equipment and supplies other supplies.

Just two days after the bridge explosionthat Putin blamed on Ukrainian special services, Moscow unleashed “high-precision, long-range weapons from the air, sea and land” to bomb Kyiv, Dnipro and other Ukrainian cities during the morning rush hour. This was probably one of the first orders officially given to Surovikin in his new role.

Such a ruthless bombardment represents a style of warfare similar to that for which Russian generals became infamous during the 2015 incursion into Syria, when Moscow sent thousands of soldiers to support the government of Bashar al-Assad. The aerial bombing left Syrians in shock and caused widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure. Some Ukrainians fear suffering now the same fate.

Surovikin didn’t invent these tactics, nor was he the only commander overseeing them – but he was particularly successful. In recognition, Putin awarded Surovikin the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the country’s highest honor.

“He is called the ‘butcher of Syria,’ but every general who held that position was a butcher of Syria,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), which monitors the activities Russian military since 2014. “It’s a job you take because killing people and making their lives miserable is what the Russian Air Force does best.”

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Surovikin’s first tour of Syria took place in March 2017 and was expected to last about three months as Moscow sought to give first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. But Surovikin ended up overseeing the campaign until the end of the year and was promoted to commander of the air force, although he rose through the ranks as the leading army general. tanks and other types of units.

The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly credited Surovikin with making critical gains in Syria, saying Russian and Syrian forces had “liberated more than 98%” of the country under him.

“The Syrian army under him lifted the siege of the strategic city of Deir al-Zour and recaptured Palmyra for the second and final time, which was quite an important part of the fight against ISIS,” he said. Mikhailov, referring to the Islamic State terrorist. band. “What is specific to Surovikin is that he actually fought with the Islamic State, which one could say is a more formidable enemy than the Syrian rebels.”

A Human Rights Watch 2020 report said air and ground attacks on civilian sites, including homes, schools and hospitals, were a feature of the Russian campaign in Idlib, which Surovikin took part in during his second tour in 2019. The report l listed as one of the commanders “who can bear command responsibility for violations” during the Idlib offensive.

Pro-Kremlin media called him “General Armageddon.”

“He received this unofficial nickname from his colleagues for his ability to think outside the box and act decisively,” Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper wrote in a June profile.

In Ukraine, Surovikin led the Southern Force Grouping, which was responsible for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, and he is credited with the capture of the towns of Hirske and Zolote in June and thereafter Lysychanskthe last major Ukrainian city in the hotly contested region.

More recently, according to the CIT, Surovikin was said to have played a key role in maintaining the Russian defense line in the southern region of Kherson, where Moscow troops were forced to retreat from the west bank of the Dnieper, but where the front did not collapse as quickly as nearby Kharkiv in the northeast.

It is not known when the Russian military leaders decided to put Surovikin in charge of the whole war. Russia reportedly named at least two previous commanders during its nearly eight-month war, but there were no official announcements, and each apparently lasted only a few weeks as Russian forces suffered strategic setbacks. and heavy losses.

Surovikin, as the leader of one of the largest force groupings, could have been in command for some time now despite the lack of any public recognition, Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the NAC, a research institute on defense based in Virginia, suggested in a tweet.

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Surovikin first rose to prominence aged 24, during the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. While holding the rank of captain, he led a motorized rifle battalion that broke through barricades erected by protesters in front of the Russian White House.

Units under Surovikin’s command killed three civilians – Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov. After the failed coup, Surovikin was imprisoned for several months, but was later released and never convicted of any crime, as Moscow prosecutors ruled he was merely obeying an order. , according to Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. reported in 2011.

Surovikin’s loyalty to the armed forces in their vain attempt to save the Soviet Union from inevitable collapse has been celebrated by modern Russian diehards who see the conquest of Ukraine as a stepping stone to the restoration of Russian Empire.

“Surovikin is a legendary person; he was born to serve the country faithfully,” Yevgeny Prigozhinthe St. Petersburg businessman who founded the Wagner Private Military Company and recruited prisoners to serve as mercenaries and bolster Russian ranks in Ukraine, a statement said. “We all remember the events at the White House in August 1991, and Surovikin was the officer who received an order and without hesitation got into a tank and rushed to save his country.”

Some 30 years later, Surovikin was promoted to army general, the second-highest military rank in Russia, which is achieved by only a handful of officers. His promotion led to speculation that he could be a possible successor to Valery Gerasimovthe Chief of the General Staff.

Throughout Surovikin’s career, Russian media portrayed him as a tough and, at times, ruthless leader.

“In the army, he is known as an ardent supporter of unity of command and the establishment of order with an ‘iron fist,'” Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported in 2008 when Surovikin was appointed chief of the main operational direction of the Russian General Staff.

According to a 2004 report in the business daily Kommersant, a colonel serving under him committed suicide after a fiery belittlement he received from Surovikin. The same report states that a lieutenant colonel in Surovikin’s division sent a complaint to the military prosecutor’s office accusing Surovikin and other officers of beating him due to political differences.

“He’s known to be quite tough and cruel, so he’s not a very pleasant commander to have, as I understand it,” Mikhailov said. “However, when a commander is chosen, the important thing is not even a certain tactical sense or the impression he has on subordinates – but the one he has on superiors with the perception that he is ready to fight a real war.”

Surovikin officially took the helm with the Russian invasion arguably at its lowest point since it began on February 24. A Ukrainian counter-offensive routed Russian forces from key strongholds to the east. Moscow’s troops are exhausted. And one mobilization intended to call in hundreds of thousands of reinforcements resulted in a exodus of men of fighting age of the country, as well as reports from conscripts that they are poorly equipped and poorly trained.

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Monday’s heavy missile bombardment was hailed by pro-Kremlin military correspondents who in recent weeks had spoken in a defeated tone of Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield.

“New attacks on critical infrastructure in Vinnytsia region, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv region, Kyiv, Lviv, Rivne, Odessa region, Khmelnytsky,” famous war journalist and blogger Alexander Kots sang on his blog on Tuesday. Telegram, listing Ukrainian cities targeted by Russian missiles. “In honor of General Surovikin’s birthday, we’re asking the radio to play Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’.”

Late Tuesday, the Kremlin said Putin had called Surovikin to congratulate him on his birthday.

Russian and Western military experts warn, however, that the jubilation of harsh voices in Moscow is likely to be short-lived as personnel changes and airstrikes on Ukrainian cities fail to address the Russian military’s most entrenched problems. .

“Reshuffling senior commanders will not address systemic issues that have crippled Russian operations, logistics, defense industry and mobilization since the invasion began,” the Institute for the Study of War said. , a Washington-based think tank, in a recent analysis. Putin “can only hope thus to stop the Ukrainian counter-offensives for a while”, he added.

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