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  • Will Kingston-Cox

Surovikin the Savage: Putin’s new commander in Ukraine makes his presence known


On Monday 10 October, unbridled terror returned to the streets of Kyiv. As many went about their somewhat renormalised morning routines, Russian missiles crashed into office blocks, parks, and crowded downtown areas, leaving eleven dead and over 80 injured. Such Russian bombardment was not limited exclusively to Kyiv. Kharkiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Ivano Frankivsk and Zaporizhzhia all came under fire – the first time in months that the Kremlin had targeted cities away from the frontline. Kyiv had not been bombed since June and the attacks served as an unwelcome reminder of the invasion’s onset. The strikes were a direct retaliation after Vladimir Putin’s Kerch Bridge – his 12-mile multi-billion-dollar vanity project that connects the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula – was partially destroyed by an alleged truck bomb on Saturday 10, in what he described a “terrorist” act perpetrated by Ukraine’s special forces.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former president of Russia, warned that the retaliatory strikes across Ukraine were just the “first episode” of Moscow’s planned vengeful response to the attack on the Kerch Bridge: “The first episode has been played. There will be others”.

Crucially, the indiscriminate callousness of Monday’s strikes bore all the hallmarks of Sergei Surovikin – Putin’s new commander in Ukraine infamous for his savagery.

General Surovikin was announced on Saturday as Russia’s overarching commander for Putin’s invasion, meaning he is now responsible for all Russian forces in Ukraine. The appointment came just hours after the attack on the Kerch Bridge. Unofficial reports from Moscow suggest that Putin has given Surovikin “carte blanche” to proceed as he sees fit in the Ukrainian conflict – a truly worrying development given his historic ferociousness.

Surovikin is a veteran of the Kremlin’s brutal war in Chechnya, where he operated with such ruthlessness that Russian army officials dubbed him “General Armageddon” on account of “his ability to act unconventionally and cruelly”. With Russia on the backfoot, General Armageddon’s promotion demonstrates Putin’s determination to throw everything at the war, seeing it out to the bitter end. With Surovikin at the helm, it is likely we will see a real intensification in the conflict, characterised by aimless brutality and cruelty.

Surovikin originally gained infamy during the failed Soviet coup d'état attempt in August 1991, when a tank division under his command broke through barricades in Moscow, crushing three protestors to death. Surovikin was imprisoned for several months pending investigation, until Boris Yeltsin authorised his release when it was decided Surovikin was simply following orders.

More recently, Surovikin exhibited his barbarism in the Syrian Civil War, overseeing the bombardment and subsequent destruction of Aleppo in 2016, when Bashar al-Assad’s forces retook the city with the help of Russian airstrikes. Surovikin was widely accused of using prohibited “cluster munitions and incendiary weapons”, a tactic that significantly helped turn the Battle of Aleppo in the Syrian government’s favour. Understandably, there is real concern that Surovikin will implement the brutal tactics of his Aleppo playbook in Ukraine, as Putin increasingly runs out of options to turn the conflict back in his favour.

Putin’s appointment of General Armageddon to chief commander of the Ukrainian invasion has nonetheless pleased Russia’s hawkish hardliners. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the infamous pro-Kremlin mercenary Wagner Group, described Surovikin as “the most competent commander in the Russian army”. Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, appeared relieved that Russia’s invasion was now in “reliable hands”, having been critical of the progress of Putin’s “special military operation” only a matter of weeks ago.

This is indisputably a pragmatic move by Putin to appease the increasing discontent amongst his supporters that he is simply not doing enough to win the war. One cannot help, however, but feel that Surovikin’s appointment really is the last-ditch attempt before nuclear means are the only viable option left for Putin.

What is clear is that the next moves from the Kremlin will be under the direction of Surovikin, notorious for his vicious unorthodoxy in combat, in a bid to repel Ukrainian counter-offensives and demoralise its people. It is a possibility that we see destruction akin to that in Aleppo on Ukrainian soil.

Putin will be acutely aware that ‘going nuclear’ in Ukraine risks the annihilation of not only his regime, but his country. He may not be ‘bluffing’ that nuclear options are on the table, but it is a risk he is unlikely to take without having tried all other means first. Thus, for now, all that remains to be seen is to what extent Surovikin will emulate his Syrian war playbook in Ukraine, and how this will change the momentum of Russia’s war efforts.

Image: Flickr / The Lyfmail



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