The general carrying out President Vladimir Putin’s new military strategy in Ukraine has a reputation for brutality — for bombing civilians in Russia’s campaign in Syria. He also played a role in the deaths of three protesters in Moscow during the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.
Bald and fierce-looking, Gen. Sergei Surovikin was put in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine Oct. 8 after what has so far been a faltering invasion that has seen a number of chaotic retreats and other setbacks over the nearly eight months of war.
Putin put the 56-year-old career military man in command following an apparent truck bombing of the strategic bridge to the Crimean Peninsula that embarrassed the Kremlin and created logistical problems for the Russian forces.
Russia responded with a barrage of strikes across Ukraine, which Putin said were aimed at knocking down energy infrastructure and Ukrainian military command centers. Such attacks have continued daily, pummeling power plants and other facilities with cruise missiles and waves of Iranian-made drones.
Surovikin also retains his job of air force chief, a position that could help coordinate the airstrikes with other operations.
During the most recent bombardments, some Russian war bloggers carried a statement attributed to Surovikin that signaled his intention to pursue the attacks with unrelenting vigor to pound the Kyiv government into submission.
“I don’t want to sacrifice Russian soldiers’ lives in a guerrilla war against hordes of fanatics armed by NATO,” the bloggers quoted his statement as saying. “We have enough technical means to force Ukraine to surrender.”
While the veracity of the statement couldn’t be confirmed, it appears to reflect the same heavy-handed approach that Surovikin took in Syria where he oversaw the destruction of entire cities to flush out rebel resistance without paying much attention to the civilian population. That indiscriminate bombing drew condemnation from international human rights groups, and some media reports have dubbed him “General Armageddon.”
Putin awarded Surovikin the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest award, in 2017 and promoted him to full general.
Kremlin hawks lauded Surovikin’s appointment in Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire businessman dubbed “Putin’s chef” who owns a prominent military contractor that plays a key role in the fighting in Ukraine, praised him as “the best commander in the Russian army.”
But even as hardliners expected Surovikin to ramp up strikes on Ukraine, his first public statements after his appointment sounded more like a recognition of the Russian military’s vulnerabilities than blustery threats.
In remarks on Russian state television, Surovikin acknowledged that Russian forces in southern Ukraine were in a “quite difficult position” in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In carefully scripted comments that Surovikin appeared to read from a teleprompter, he said that further action in the region will depend on the evolving combat situation. Observers interpreted his statement as an attempt to prepare the public for a possible Russian pullback from the strategic southern city of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Surovikin began his military career with the Soviet army in 1980s and, as a young lieutenant, was named an infantry platoon commander. When he later rose to air force chief, it drew a mixed reaction in the ranks because it marked the first time when the job was given to an infantry officer.
He found himself in the center of a political storm in 1991.
When members of the Communist Party’s old guard staged a hardline coup in August of that year, briefly ousting Gorbachev and sending troops into Moscow to impose a state of emergency, Surovikin commanded one of the mechanized infantry battalions that rolled into the capital.
Popular resistance mounted quickly, and in the final hours of the three-day coup, protesters blocked an armored convoy led by Surovikin and tried to set some of the vehicles ablaze. In a chaotic melee, two protesters were shot and a third was crushed to death by an armored vehicle.
The coup collapsed later that day, and Surovikin was quickly arrested. He spent seven months behind bars pending an inquiry but was eventually acquitted and even promoted to major as investigators concluded that he was only fulfilling his duties.
Another rocky moment in his career came in 1995, when Surovikin was convicted of illegal possession and trafficking of firearms while studying at a military academy. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but the conviction was reversed quickly.
He rose steadily through the ranks, commanding units deployed to the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, leading troops sent to Chechnya and serving at other posts across Russia.
He was appointed commander of Russian forces in Syria in 2017 and served a second stint there in 2019 as Moscow sought to prop up President Bashar Assad’s regime and help it regain ground amid a devastating civil war.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch named Surovikin, along with Putin, Assad and other figures as bearing command responsibility for violations during the 2019-20 Syrian offensive in Idlib province.
He apparently has a temper that has not endeared him to subordinates, according to Russian media. One officer under Surovikin complained to prosecutors that the general had beaten him after becoming angry over how he voted in parliamentary elections; another subordinate reportedly shot himself. Investigators found no wrongdoing in either case.
His track record in Syria could have been a factor behind his appointment in Ukraine, as Putin has moved to raise the stakes and reverse a series of humiliating defeats.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has repeatedly called for ramping up strikes in Ukraine, praised Surovikin as “a real general and a warrior, well-experienced, farsighted and forceful who places patriotism, honor and dignity above all.”
“The united group of forces is now in safe hands,” the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov said, voicing confidence that he will “improve the situation.”