The general implementing 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 precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bald and fierce-looking, Gen. Sergei Surovikin was put in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine on Oct. 8 after a so-far botched invasion that led to numerous chaotic retreats and other setbacks during the nearly eight-month war.
Putin put the 56-year-old career military man in command after an apparent truck bombing of a strategic bridge on the Crimea peninsula embarrassed the Kremlin and created logistical problems for Russian forces.
Russia responded with a barrage of attacks across Ukraine, which Putin said were aimed at destroying energy infrastructure and Ukrainian military command centers. Such attacks continued daily, targeting power plants and other facilities with cruise missiles and waves of Iranian-made drones.
Surovikin also kept his job as head of the air force, a position that could help coordinate airstrikes with other operations.
During the latest bombings, some Russian war bloggers carried a statement attributed to Surovikin that signaled his intention to continue attacks with unrelenting force in an attempt to force the government in Kiev into submission.
“I don’t want to sacrifice the lives of Russian soldiers in a guerilla war against hordes of fanatics armed by NATO,” bloggers quoted him as saying. “We have enough technical means to force Ukraine to surrender.”
While the veracity of the statement could not be confirmed, it appears to reflect the same heavy-handed approach Surovikin took in Syria where he oversaw the destruction of entire cities to drive out rebel resistance without paying much attention to the civilian population. The indiscriminate bombing drew condemnation from international human rights groups, and some media called it “General Armageddon.”
Putin awarded Surovikina the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest award, in 2017 and promoted him to full general.
Kremlin hawks praised Surovikin’s appointment in Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire businessman nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” who owns a prominent military contractor playing a key role in the fighting in Ukraine, praised him as “the best commander of the Russian army.”
But although hardliners expected Surovikin to step up strikes on Ukraine, his first public statements after his appointment sounded more like an admission of the Russian military’s vulnerability than a blustering threat.
In a statement on Russian state television, Surovikin acknowledged that Russian forces in southern Ukraine were in a “pretty difficult position” in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In carefully scripted comments that Surovikin appeared to read from a teleprompter, he said further actions in the region would depend on the developing combat situation. Observers interpreted his statement as an attempt to prepare the public for a possible Russian withdrawal from the strategic southern city of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Surovikin began his military career in the Soviet Army in the 1980s and as a young lieutenant was appointed commander of an infantry platoon. When he later became Air Chief, it caused mixed reactions in the ranks as it was the first time an infantry officer had been given the job.
He found himself at the center of a political storm in 1991.
When members of the Communist Party’s old guard staged a hardline coup that August, briefly ousting Gorbachev and sending troops into Moscow to impose martial law, Surovikin commanded one of the mechanized infantry battalions that pushed into the capital.
Popular resistance grew rapidly, and in the final hours of the three-day coup, protesters blocked an armored convoy led by Surovikin and tried to set fire to some of the vehicles. In a chaotic clash, two demonstrators were shot, and the third was crushed to death by an armored vehicle.
The coup failed later that day, and Surovikin was quickly arrested. He spent seven months behind bars awaiting investigation, but was eventually acquitted and even promoted to major after investigators concluded he was merely fulfilling his duties.
Another difficult moment in his career occurred in 1995, when Surovikin was convicted of illegal possession and trafficking of firearms while studying at the military academy. He was sentenced to one year in prison, but the verdict was quickly overturned.
He rose steadily through the ranks, commanding units deployed in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, leading troops sent to Chechnya and serving in other posts across Russia.
He was appointed commander of Russian forces in Syria in 2017 and served there for a second term in 2019 as Moscow sought to prop up President Bashar Assad’s regime and help him recover from a devastating civil war.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch named Surovikin, along with Putin, Assad and other figures, as having command responsibility for violations during the 2019-20 Syrian offensive in Idlib province.
It is obvious that he has a temperament that did not endear him to his subordinates, according to Russian media. One officer under Surovikin complained to prosecutors that the general beat him after he was angry about how he voted in the parliamentary elections; another subordinate allegedly shot himself. Investigators did not find any violations in both cases.
His experience in Syria may have been a factor behind his appointment in Ukraine, as Putin moves to up the ante and reverse a string of humiliating defeats.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has repeatedly called for more strikes in Ukraine, praised Surovikin as “a true general and warrior, experienced, far-sighted and strong who puts patriotism, honor and dignity above all else.
“The United Group of Forces is now in safe hands,” Kremlin-backed Kadyrov said, expressing confidence that it would “improve the situation.”
Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine