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Russia’s new commander in Ukraine was decorated after brutality in Syria

The aftermath of a Russian missile strike near Tower 101, not far from Kyiv's main train station, on Tuesday. (Ed Ram/Getty Images)
9 min

Russia’s missile strikes on Ukrainian cities Monday, which President Vladimir Putin said targeted “energy, military command and communications facilities,” also hit downtown streets, a playground and residential areas, bearing a grim resemblance to Russia’s brutally indiscriminate military style in Syria, where the Kremlin’s new top commander of the war on Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, rose to prominence.

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

But Surovikin, whose appointment was announced by Russia’s Defense Ministry on Saturday, is most assuredly tasked with shifting results on the battlefield, where Russian forces have suffered a string of setbacks, including a near total rout in the northeastern Kharkiv region and territorial losses throughout regions that Putin decreed annexed in violation of international law.

Surovikin, 56, who earned the nickname “General Armageddon” in Syria, is the first overarching commander of the onslaught in Ukraine to be designated publicly by the Russian government.

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

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

Such a merciless bombing 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 troops to prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad. The aerial bombardments left Syrians reeling and caused widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure. Some Ukrainians are fearful they will now suffer the same fate.

Surovikin did not invent those tactics, nor was he the only commander to oversee 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 being called the ‘Butcher of Syria,’ but every general that took that post was a butcher of Syria,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), which has been monitoring Russian military activities since 2014. “It’s a job you take because killing people and making their life miserable is what the Russian air force can do best.”

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Surovikin’s first tour in Syria took place in March 2017 and was supposed to last about three months as Moscow sought to give firsthand 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 air force commander, despite moving up the ranks as an army general leading tank and other types of units.

The Russian Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian and Syrian forces “liberated over 98 percent” 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 last time, which was quite an important part of the fight against ISIS,” Mikhailov said, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group. “The thing specific to Surovikin is that he actually fought with ISIS, which you could say is a more formidable enemy than just Syrian rebels.”

A 2020 Human Rights Watch report said that air and ground attacks on civilian sites, including homes, schools and hospitals, were a hallmark of Russia’s campaign in Idlib, which Surovikin participated in during his second tour in 2019. The report listed him as one of the commanders “who may bear command responsibility for violations” during the Idlib offensive.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets lionized him as “General Armageddon.”

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

In Ukraine, Surovikin led the south grouping of forces, which was responsible for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, and he is credited with capturing the towns of Hirske and Zolote in June and subsequently Lysychansk, the last major Ukrainian-held city in the hotly contested area.

Most recently, the CIT said, Surovikin was rumored to be key in holding the line of Russian defenses in the southern Kherson region, where Moscow’s troops were forced to retreat from the western bank of the Dnieper River but where the front has not crumbled as quickly as it did near Kharkiv in the northeast.

It is not clear when Russian military chiefs decided to put Surovikin in charge of the overall war. Russia reportedly appointed at least two previous commanders in its nearly eight-month war, but there were no official announcements, and each apparently lasted just a few weeks as Russian forces suffered strategic failures and heavy casualties.

Surovikin, as the leader of one of the largest groupings of forces, might have been in charge for some time now despite the absence of any public acknowledgment, Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute based in Virginia, suggested in a tweet.

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Surovikin first achieved notoriety at age 24, during the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Then holding the rank of captain, he led a motorized rifle battalion that drove through barricades set up by protesters outside 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 jailed for several months but then was freed and never convicted of any crime as prosecutors in Moscow ruled that he was simply obeying an order, the Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported in 2011.

Surovikin’s loyalty to the armed forces in their futile attempt to save the Soviet Union from inevitable collapse has been celebrated by modern-day Russian hard-liners who see the conquest of Ukraine as a steppingstone to the restoration of the Russian empire.

“Surovikin is a legendary person; he was born to faithfully serve the Motherland,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the St. Petersburg businessman who founded the Wagner private military company and has recruited prisoners to serve as mercenaries and bolster Russian ranks in Ukraine, said in a statement. “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 general of the army, the second-highest military rank in Russia, which is achieved by just a handful of officers. His promotion led to speculation that he might be an eventual successor to Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff.

Throughout Surovikin’s career, the Russian media has described him as a harsh and, occasionally, ruthless leader.

“In the army, he is known as an ardent supporter of unity of command and installing order with an ‘iron fist,’ ” Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported in 2008 when Surovikin was appointed chief of the main operational directorate of the Russian general staff.

According to a 2004 report in the business daily Kommersant, a colonel serving under him killed himself after a heated dressing-down he received from Surovikin. The same report said a lieutenant colonel from Surovikin’s division sent a complaint to the military prosecutor’s office accusing Surovikin and other officers of beating him because of political differences.

“He is known to be quite harsh and cruel, so he is not a very pleasant commander to have, as I understand,” Mikhailov said. “However, when a commander is being chosen, the important part is not even some tactical acumen or the impression he has on the subordinates — but the one he has on the superiors along with a perception that he is prepared to fight a real war.”

Surovikin has officially taken the helm with the Russian invasion arguably at its lowest point since it started on Feb. 24. A Ukrainian counteroffensive routed Russian forces from key strongholds in the east. Moscow’s troops are exhausted. And a mobilization intended to call up hundreds of thousands of reinforcements has led to an exodus of fighting-age men from the country, as well as reports by conscripts that they are ill-equipped and receiving poor training.

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Monday’s heavy missile bombardment has been praised by pro-Kremlin military correspondents who in recent weeks had been speaking in defeated tones about Ukraine’s battlefield gains.

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

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

Russian and Western military experts, however, caution that the jubilation among hard-line voices in Moscow is likely to be short-lived as personnel changes and air attacks on Ukrainian cities fail to solve more entrenched problems in the Russian military.

“Shuffling senior commanders will not fix the systemic problems that have hamstrung Russian operations, logistics, defense industry, and mobilization from the outset of the invasion,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a recent analysis. Putin “can only hope thereby to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensives for a time,” it added.