Sergei Surovikin, the brutal Russian commander called General Armageddon, is the person charged with winning the Ukraine war by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
On August 21, 1991, shortly after midnight, a column of armoured personnel carriers led by soldiers from a section of Russia’s famed Taman Guards, 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, rolled into a tunnel in the heart of Moscow, where it was met by demonstrators enraged by an attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Three of the protesters were killed in the ensuing turmoil as they blocked the street with buses and street sweepers. The column finally retreated.
The conflict was a turning moment in the coup, which was overturned the following day.
Captain Sergei Surovikin, 24, a mid-ranking officer who was briefly detained for issuing orders but then released, was in charge of the unit.
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Surovikin continued his long military career in Russia, where he received numerous promotions and developed a reputation for unrelenting brutality in Chechnya and, more recently, in Syria. Vladimir Putin, the president, selected the highly regarded Surovikin, 56 at the time, as the general commander of Russia’s waning conflict with Ukraine on October 8.
The war entered a potentially much deadlier new phase with Surovikin in control two days later when Russia launched the greatest bombardment of missiles and air strikes since the invasion in February.
“For Ukraine, I’d worry a lot about Surovikin’s absolutely unforgiving attitude to the enemy — seen as combatants and civilians alike — and his laser-like focus on achieving military progress no matter the cost or risk,” said Charles Lister, who is director of the Syria program at the U.S.-based Middle East Institute and followed Surovikin’s earlier command of Russian forces in Syria.
“Ultimately, civilians are likely to suffer the most, particularly as Ukraine looks set only to continue its effective and heroic fight for its territory,” Lister said in an e-mail.
“It is doubtful whether he can change the underlying dynamic of the war, as Ukraine fields increasingly well-trained troops and advanced weapons,” Mark Galeotti, a longtime expert on Russia’s security forces, wrote in a column for The Spectator. “Nonetheless, he will presumably be expected to try and that is likely to mean many more air raid sirens in towns and cities across Ukraine.”
A Meteoric Rise
The beginning of Surovikin’s career may be traced to some of the top military institutions in the Soviet Union. He first graduated from an officer training academy in Omsk in 1987. He worked with Soviet special forces for a while in Afghanistan, according to a 2005 profile in the Krasnaya Zvezda journal, which is published by the Defense Ministry.
Surovikin’s military career was blossoming at the time of the commotion in Moscow in August 1991. With the Taman Guards, he was already a captain and battalion commander, an honourable position for a young officer.
A claim made in several news articles at the time that Surovikin shot one of the Moscow protesters himself was never fully proven. But he was ultimately imprisoned for a few months at Moscow’s infamous Matrosskaya Tishina Prison before being released in December 1991, reportedly on orders from then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
In addition, he received a big promotion and enrolled in Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy, one of the most esteemed Defense Ministry schools in the nation. Surovikin, however, became involved in a criminal probe into illegal weapon sales and trafficking while he was there.
Surovikin was ultimately found guilty on three counts by a military court in Moscow, but his sentence was merely one year of probation. This decision infuriated some military brass, especially since Surovikin’s career went uninterrupted.
In 2012, information about the case, the mild sentencing, and the internal dissatisfaction, as well as his attempts to have the case removed from his military record, were leaked to Russian newspapers.
In 2012, Surovikin claimed that the issue had been resolved in 1995 and that he had been cleared and given an apology in a remark to the journal Komsomolskaya pravda.
‘Everyone Has Their Own Destiny’
Surovikin was transferred to Tajikistan after graduating from the Frunze academy, where he served in the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, the largest Russian regiment in all of former Soviet Central Asia, and was quickly promoted. His career advancements proceeded with training at the Moscow General Staff Academy and subsequently a position in charge of the Volga-Urals Military District’s 34th Motorized Rifle Division.
Surovikin was the subject of an investigation in 2004 for an incident involving the suicide of one of his top subordinate officers. That matter was likewise swiftly resolved, which led some in the Defense Ministry to complain.
“Officers of a good commander do not shoot themselves in the office with service weapons,” one officer who served in the General Staff told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in a 2017 profile of Surovikin.
After Surovikin assumed command of the 42nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division in Chechnya in June 2004, his management style came under scrutiny as well. The Kremlin’s depiction of the second war in the rebellious North Caucasus at the time indicated that it had already changed from full combat operations into a “counterterrorism operation.”
In the capital of Grozny in February 2005, a wall collapsed on nine reconnaissance soldiers serving in a regiment under the 42nd division, killing them. In TV appearances, Surovikin promised revenge, although the daily Novaya gazeta later questioned the narrative, saying the wall may have fallen because a drunken soldier mishandled a land mine or accidentally fired a grenade launcher.
Surovikin reiterated his assertion that Chechen “bandits” were to blame for the wall’s collapse in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda in April 2005.
“In general, you can endlessly say what was done right and what was not. It’s easier to be clever when you already know what happened. But fighting is fighting. And here it is not always possible to realistically assess the situation,” he was quoted as saying.
“Everyone has their own destiny. Anything can happen to anyone,” he told the newspaper. “And not only in Chechnya.”
After the war in which Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, he joined the General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate. Although Russia won, the conflict exposed serious issues within the military, sparking a massive push to modernise and reform it. Surovikin “took this post in the context of a large-scale reform of the Russian Army, which began after the ‘operation to force Georgia to peace,'” according to a 2017 TASS profile.
Surovikin, then a colonel general, was promoted to command Russia’s Aerospace Forces in 2017, a sprawling amalgam that includes missile units in addition to the air force. Many air force commanders were surprised that an army officer was chosen as the force commander because he was “the first ‘non-flying’ commander in the history of Russian military aviation,” as Novaya gazeta afterwards referred to him.
He was also dispatched to Syria during same year, where Russian forces had intervened in 2015 to support government forces engaged in a war against rebels and terrorist groups.
In addition to supporting Bashar al-forces Assad’s in Syria, the effort was successful in expanding the Russian military facility in the Tartus port. Surovikin, however, established a reputation for brutal tactics during his two tours there. He oversaw the bombardments of Aleppo and Ghouta, both of which were mainly under rebel control at the time. Additionally, during his command, Syrian forces frequently used chemical weapons, like as chlorine bombs, against civilian sites.
“Surovikin’s time in command of Russia’s campaign in Syria was a pivotally important one, during which Russia was finally able to determinedly shift the course of the conflict in Assad’s favor,” Lister told RFE/RL. “Surovikin’s command was clinical, brutal, and most of all, ferociously calculated.”
He also intensified his strategy, according to Lister, cooperating with Iranian proxies in Syria, particularly the Quds Force, an elite division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Hizbullah, a militia with ties to Iran that the United States and the European Union have designated as a terrorist organisation.
“Though mostly covert and little acknowledged, that direct coordination with the Quds Force unquestionably contributed to the strategic relationship the world now sees between Iran and Russia,” he said.
Surovikin was one of several Russian commanders who “knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those directly responsible,” according to a Human Rights Watch report from 2020 on military attacks on civilians in Syria.
Private mercenary firms, particularly Vagner, whose owner is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a tycoon with deep ties to the Kremlin in St. Petersburg, have been more involved in Russia’s operation in Syria. A base housing Kurdish fighters and American advisers was attacked in February 2018 by a group of Vagner mercenaries and their Syrian allies; in response, American forces launched huge airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of “couple hundred Russians.”
Following the assault, Russian military bloggers blamed Russian commanders for either allowing the mercenary squad to advance or for not offering greater defence against American forces.
Surovikin reportedly earned the title “General Armageddon” among officers as a result of his leadership in Syria, according to Komsomolskaya pravda.
For his command in Syria, the Kremlin presented Surovikin with the Hero of Russia medal, the highest military honour bestowed by the nation. He received a promotion to full general in August 2021.
The Invasion Of Ukraine
Surovikin oversaw the southern division of Russian forces, which was later in charge of, among other things, a gruelling assault on the city of Syevyerodonetsk in the Luhansk region, which was eventually conquered by Russian forces on June 25. This was four months after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In September, when Ukrainian forces launched a stunning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, driving Russian troops from the area and later seizing control of Lyman, a crucial rail hub in the Donetsk region, what was viewed as a major defeat for Russian forces, Surovikin was still officially in charge of the southern group in Ukraine.
Military bloggers, right-wing commenters, and nationalists were outraged by the defeat and turned to Telegram to criticize Russian commanders—though not Surovikin specifically. Newspapers and state television carried the outburst of rage to a larger audience.
Surovikin will be taking over as the unifying commander for the Ukraine conflict, Putin abruptly stated on October 8. The appointment fell on the same day that a bridge explosion that connects the Ukrainian peninsula that is controlled by Russia to Russia severely damaged the building. The majority of people agree that Ukrainian soldiers were responsible for the explosion.
Bloggers and analysts who had called for a stronger approach to the Ukraine conflict praised Surovikin’s promotion. He was referred to as “the most competent commander in the Russian Army” by Prigozhin.
“After receiving orders,” Prigozhin said in a statement released by his company, Surovikin “got in his tank without hesitation and rushed to save his country.”
Russia bombarded Ukraine with missiles two days later.