President Vladimir Putin has appointed General Sergey Surovikin to lead the war effort in Ukraine amid a series of military setbacks and growing frustration in Russia over its invasion of the neighbouring country.
The appointment on Saturday comes after the sacking of two Russian senior military commanders as Kyiv has been able to win back territories lost to Russia in the north-east and south of Ukraine. It also takes place as Moscow had to suffered a big blow following the partial destruction of the Kerch bridge – a key link between Russian and annexed-Crimea.
So who is Surovikin?
The general, born in 1966 in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, has a reputation “for total ruthlessness” in the Russian military, according to a report (PDF) by the Jamestown foundation, a US defence policy think-tank focusing on Eurasian security and political developments.
He participated in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as in both Chechen wars where he was reportedly wounded in combat efforts several times.
“Surovikin made a stellar career in the top echelons of the General Staff and defence ministry after 2008, during the radical military reform that required ruthlessness in dismissing unneeded veterans and building a more battle-ready and leaner force,” read the report. “Surovikin’s readiness to vigorously execute any orders trounced any potential questions about his checkered curriculum vitae,” it added.
The general was jailed twice. The first time he spent six months behind bars after soldiers under his command killed three demonstrators in the Russian capital, Moscow, during the August 1991 coup that preceded the end of the Soviet Union. He was later released without trial. Four years later he received a sentence – later overturned – for illegal arms trade.
While in Chechnya in 2005 he reportedly said he would kill three Chechens for every one of his soldiers killed.
“Surovikin knows how to fight with bombers and missiles, that’s what he does,” the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service Kyrylo Budanov told a RBC-Ukraine reporter in July while responding on why Russia was intensifying the use of air strikes.
Surovikin received the title of Hero of Russia and was awarded a medal for his service on Syria in 2017 where he led the Russian military expedition as commander of the Aerospace Forces. Moscow intervened in 2015 on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Surovikin was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.
In a report published in October 2020, Human Rights Watch listed Surovikin among the commanders “who may bear command responsibility for violations” during the 2019-2020 offensive in Syria’s Idlib.
In a rare public comment, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group who was heavily deployed in Syria called Surovikin a legendary person,” he was quoted by Live24 news agency. “Surovikin is the most competent commander in the Russian army”, Prigozhin added.
In summer 2022 he was installed as head of the southern military grouping. The name of his predecessor has never been officially revealed, but some Russian media said it was General Alexander Dvornikov – also a general of the second Chechen war and Russian commander in Syria.
Russia also sacked another commander of its Eastern Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Chaiko, the Russian news site RBC reported on Friday – the latest reshuffle of top brass comes amid a string of battlefield reversals in Ukraine.
The decision to give Surovikin the war command – unusually made public by Moscow – comes after a series of crushing defeats suffered by the Russian army in eastern Ukraine. Some observers believe his appointment signals how the war effort will concentrate on one specific area.
“It may be Luhansk, it may be Donetsk, it may be in the south. What we are seeing is a shrinking of the operation of Russia,” Alexandre Vautravers, from the Swiss Military Review said.
Russian forces were driven out of much of the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September by a Ukrainian counteroffensive that allowed Kyiv to retake thousands of square kilometres of territory.
Russian troops also lost territory in the southern Kherson region as well as the Lyman transport hub in eastern Ukraine.
On Saturday, a Kremlin-backed official in Ukraine’s Kherson region announced a partial evacuation of civilians from the southern province, one of four illegally annexed by Moscow last week.
Kirill Stremousov told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency that young children and their parents, as well as the elderly, could be relocated to two southern Russian regions because Kherson was getting “ready for a difficult period”.
On Friday, Moscow said its forces captured ground in the eastern Donetsk region – the first claim of new gains since Kyiv’s successful counteroffensive that has rattled Moscow’s military campaign.
Donetsk, partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists for years, is a key prize for Russian forces, which sent troops to Ukraine into on February 24.