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Sergei Surovikin: 'General Armageddon' gets stood down

Miodrag Soric
August 23, 2023

After disappearing from public view, Sergei Surovikin's fate is now clear. The Russian army commander in Ukraine's career is over, for now at least. Proximity to Wagner rebel Prigozhin seems to have done the trick.

Russland Bekanntgabe Rückzug Cherson  Sergei Surovikin
Surovikin has consistently had a hand in major Russian military operations up to nowImage: Russian Defense Ministry via AP

By the time Sergey Surovikin was named commander-in-chief of Russian troops in Ukraine in October 2022, his reputation already preceded him. The 57-year-old general was often dubbed "General Armageddon" on social media, having led Russian troops in the Syrian war for two stints in 2017 and 2019.

Surovikin's selection as head of the invading Russian Army in Ukraine was well-received in his home country, coming in the wake of setbacks in eastern Ukraine. Many wanted a tougher approach, not least Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.

Since Russia descended on Ukraine in February 2022, Surovikin had led Moscow's troops in the south.

His promotion to the head of the invading forces fitted into President Vladimir Putin's strategy of escalation, Margarete Klein, a Russian security policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW at the time. The move was intended to have a psychological effect on Ukraine, Klein said: Demoralization and deterrence.

Unscrupulous operation

Under Surovikin, Russian forces have attacked civilian targets in Ukraine with increasing ruthlessness, nonetheless failing to yield military victories. Last autumn, the general organized the withdrawal of Russian aggressors from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. In doing so, Surovikin avoided an even bigger military defeat.

Over the course of this winter, it became increasingly clear to Russian generals that there would be no military successes in Ukraine. On the contrary, the Ukrainian forces succeeded — and continue to succeed — in carrying out counterattacks on several sections of the front.

As a result, frustration in Russia continued to proliferate under Surovikin. Putin's expectations of a quick victory over Ukraine would not be realized.

Smoke and dirt rise from the city of Severodonetsk in Ukraine
City under fire: Severodonetsk before capture by Russian troops in June 2022Image: Aris Messinis/AFP

The disappointment was expressed most clearly by the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a candor that made him popular among many Russians and Russian officers. Prigozhin blamed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the lack of military success.

When that didn't help, Prigozhin gambled on a revolt with his mercenary troops in June, marching toward Moscow before eventually giving up. In return, he and his mercenaries were allowed to settle in Belarus untroubled.

At arms' length, half-heartedly

According to Russian military bloggers, Surovikin knew about Prigozhin's plans. Initially, Sorovikin kept silent about the mercenary chief's uprising, along with many Russian generals. Ultimately, he publicly condemned it.

This rebuke was too little, too late. For many observers in Moscow, it is clear that Surovikin's closeness to Prigozhin was his undoing.

After the end of the Prigozhin uprising, Surovikin was arrested and interrogated. He disappeared from the public eye for a long time. Even his family had no contact with him. According to media reports, he has now been removed from office but remains under the "authority of the Ministry of Defense."

The dishonorable end of Surovikin's career matches his ascent. A native of Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, with a brawny appearance, Surovikin attended the higher military school in Omsk in 1987 and fought in the Afghanistan war.

In 1991, he was deployed in the failed August coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev. As a rifle commander, he ordered his soldiers to run over three demonstrators with tanks who had set up road barricades. This landed him behind bars for half a year. He denied responsibility, telling prosecutors that he had only carried out orders.

Accusations of war crimes

Human rights organizations accuse Surovikin of being responsible for several war crimes committed in Syria and terrorizing the civilian population.

According to Human Rights Watch, he allowed hospitals in the Idlib province to be bombed, even though it was known that many children were in them. He also allegedly at least allowed for the deployment of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, if not ordered them. He is also attributed with responsibility for the bombardment of Aleppo, the city reduced to rubble by Russian air forces in 2016. Putin named him Hero of the Russian Federation for the Syrian campaign the following year.

Men and children hurrying through rubble on the streets of Aleppo after an air strike
Residents in the wake of air strikes on AleppoImage: Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images/AFP

Wherever the Russian military has shed the blood of civilians in recent decades, Surovikin has almost always been involved. Among other things, he was deployed in the Second Chechen War in 2004 and 2005, and in October 2017, he became commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force.

Did he also personally enriched himself as an officer? "We have no evidence of that," researcher Klein said, but it is known that corruption is endemic in Russia's army.

This article has been translated from German.