Sergei Surovikin is a general who played a prominent role in Russia’s past battles from Chechnya to Syria. Now he will lead Russian forces in Ukraine.
Amid the retreat of Russian forces on several fronts across eastern and southern Ukraine in the face of Kiev’s counteroffensive to take back territories, Moscow-annexed Crimea’s Kerch bridge, one of Russia’s powerful symbols, was recently hit by mysterious blasts.
As Russian forces falter across Ukraine, Putin faces growing pressure at home from hardliners to use force against Kiev to put down Ukrainian resistance. Russian general Sergei Surovikin’s appointment as top commander over the weekend to oversee the war indicates Putin adopting a more hawkish stance, experts say.
Soon as he was appointed to the top military post, Surovikin ordered deadly strikes on Kiev and other cities in western Ukraine, showcasing a tougher approach.
Surovikin’s previous assignments, from Chechnya’s Grozny to Syria’s Aleppo, have been a testament to his brutal tactics. Many Kremlin operators now hope the hardliner general can overcome the Ukraine resistance to prevent a Russian fiasco in Eastern Europe.
Prior to Surovikin, Putin’s two generals, Gennady Valeryevich Zhidko and Alexander Dvornikov, who respectively commanded the Kremlin’s Ukraine offensive, were not able to change the tide of the conflict in favour of Russia, highlighting enormous difficulties the new appointee will potentially face.
“Particularly [at] the peak of the operations, it is a frequent situation that the units whose casualty rate has increased are replaced in place and new unit commanders are appointed for purposes such as maintaining the momentum, organising in the captured areas, reorganising for the next operation, raising the morale/motivation, establishing the unity spirit,” says Ulas Pehlivan, a former Turkish military officer.
“The appointment of General Sergei Surovikin, a commander with war/operation experience, who took part in all Russian operations in the past, to the management of the troops in Ukraine, aims to strengthen the image of Russia, which was weakened after Ukraine's counter-attacks and especially the Kerch bridge attack,” Pehlivan tells TRT World.
The spirit of unity among soldiers is an extremely important element in the psychology of war. A significant part of a soldier’s fight is the motive of protecting their own unit and their friends as much as capturing a target, according to military strategists.
In military strategy, it’s necessary to change the command structure when things go wrong. A new commander might refresh soldiers’ morale and inject a new sense of hope.
“The most important task of Sergei Surovikin, who has operational experience, will be to increase the dwindling spirit of unity and combat determination of the Russian soldier,” says Pehlivan.
Some top Russian operators believe that he could change Russian chances in Ukraine. “Surovikin is the most competent commander in the Russian army”, according to Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner group, a Russian mercenary organisation.
Surovikin’s previous tasks
The 56-year-old general is currently the commander of Russian Aerospace Forces. During the Russian attack on Ukraine, he led the army’s offensive in southern Ukraine. While Russia gained critical territory in southern Ukraine under Surovikin’s command, Kiev’s counteroffensive has forced some units to retreat to areas close to Kherson in the region.
He previously led Moscow’s Syria intervention, where the general played a critical role to capture Aleppo from opposition groups after a bloody siege on the ancient city, bombing civilians and fighters alike and showing his brutal understanding of the war.
Many Russian commentators credited him for enabling the Assad regime’s regaining of more than 50 percent of Syrian territories, turning the civil war in favour of Damascus.
However, bombing Ukraine is far more complicated than the military campaign in Syria for Russia, mainly due to Ukrainians being an Orthodox Christian nation with Slavic roots.
Also if Russia’s southern Ukraine front collapses under a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive, many in the Russian military might point their fingers toward Surovikin, who was responsible for the front prior to his current task to oversee the overall offensive against Kiev.
Prior to Ukraine and Syria, he also served in Afghanistan and Chechnya to fight Moscow’s wars in two strategic locations in Caucasia and South Asia.
A controversial career
Long before his assignment to Syria, Surovikin already had a controversial military career, having been jailed twice for his conduct in different incidents.
After serving in the Soviet-Afghan War in the late 1980s, he was stationed as a captain in an army unit in Moscow, where his battalion faced anti-coup protesters during the failed military intervention against former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist government.
His battalion was responsible for the killing of three anti-coup demonstrators. As a result, he was arrested and tried after being under investigation for seven months. But the charges against him were dropped because then Russian President Boris Yeltsin believed he was just following orders from his superiors.
Four years after that investigation, he was charged again. This time he was accused of selling illegal weapons, receiving one year of probation under Moscow's garrison’s military court. But again his sentence was overturned on the grounds that he did not intend to sell weapons, believing that the pistol he gave to a military student would be used not in an illegal event.
In the 2000s, he was also involved in other violent incidents, in which one of his colleagues accused the general of beating him as one of his subordinates committed suicide after receiving criticism from Surovikin.
Despite all these troubles, Surovikin has been able to move forward in his career. After his leadership in Syria, he was promoted to General of the Army, the second highest rank in the Russian army, triggering rumours that he would succeed army chief Valery Gerasimov in the near future.