Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a devastating war against Ukraine. Now, a new general is in charge, with a reputation for brutality.
After Ukraine retook more territory than it had taken from the Russian army in the past six months, last Saturday the Russian Ministry of Defense appointed Sergey Surovikin as the new overall commander for war operations.
Notably, he previously played an important role in Russia’s operations in Syria – Russian warplanes wreaked havoc on rebel-held areas – as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
CNN spoke with a former Russian air force lieutenant, Gleb Irisov, who served under him in Syria.
He said Surovikin was “very close to Putin’s regime” and “never had any political ambitions, so he always executed a plan as the government wanted.”
Analysts say Surovikin’s appointment is unlikely to change how Russian forces conduct the war, but it speaks to Putin’s dissatisfaction with previous commando operations. In part, it is likely to be a “shaping” of the nationalist and pro-war base within Russia, according to Mason Clark, Russia director at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think-tank.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has called on Russia to “take tougher measures”, including the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine, after recent setbacks and has welcomed the appointment of Surovik, who saw first service in Afghanistan. 1980s before commanding a unit in the Second Chechen War in 2004. The praise of Kadyrov, a key Putin ally, is perhaps significant because he is known for cracking down on all forms of dissent.
“I have personally known Sergei very well for almost 15 years. I can say without a doubt that he is a real general and warrior, an experienced, thoughtful and far-sighted commander who always puts patriotism, honor and respect first,” Kadyrov posted on social media. after learning of Surovikin’s appointment last Saturday. “The United Army team is now in safe hands,” he added.
Irisov, a former subordinate of Surovikin, left a five-year career in the armed forces after a stint in Syria because his political views conflicted with what he had experienced. “Of course, you understand who is right and who is wrong,” said Irisov. “I saw a lot of things, being inside the system.”
Irisov then began what he hoped would be the start of an international journalistic career as a military correspondent for the Russian state news agency TASS. His wife worked there and believed it was “the only major news agency” at the time that tried to cover the news in a “biased way” with “some opportunity for free speech,” he said.
“Everything changed” on February 24, 2022, when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began and TASS received orders from the FSB security service and the defense ministry that “everyone will be prosecuted if they don’t execute the propaganda scheme,” Irisov said.
He had family in Kiev, hiding in bomb shelters, and told CNN he knew “nothing could justify this war.” He also knew from his military contacts that there were many casualties in the first days of the war.
“It was obvious to me from the beginning,” Irisov recalled. “I tried to explain to people that this war will lead to the collapse of Russia … it will be a great tragedy not only for Ukrainians but also for Russia.”
Irisov fled Moscow with his pregnant wife and young child on March 8, 2022, after opposing the invasion. He quit his job at TASS and signed anti-war petitions and an open letter, he told CNN. After traveling to Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and finally Mexico, where they contacted the US Embassy for help, they are now working to start a new life in West Virginia.
While serving at Syria’s Latakia airbase in 2019 and 2020, the 31-year-old says he worked in aircraft security and air traffic control, coordinating flights with civilian airlines in Damascus. He claims to have seen Surovik several times during some missions and to have spoken with senior officers under him.
“He made a lot of people very angry; they hated him,” Irisov said, describing him as a “fair” and “correct” general at headquarters because of the way he tried to implement his infantry experience in the air force.
Irisov says he understands that Surovikin had close ties to the Kremlin-sanctioned Wagner group, a private military company that has operated in Syria.
The Kremlin denies any connection to Wagner and insists that private military companies are illegal in Russia.
Surovikin, whose military career began in 1983, has a checkered history, to say the least.
In 2004, according to Russian media accounts and at least two think tanks, the subordinate who reprimanded a subordinate so harshly took his own life.
And a book by the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington DC says that during the August 1991 coup attempt against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, soldiers under Surovikin’s command killed three protesters, causing Surovikin to spend at least six months in prison.
CNN has reached out to Russia’s Defense Ministry about Surovikin’s appointment and allegations of heavy-handed leadership.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch named “someone who may be responsible for command” during the 2019-2020 offensive in Idlib for dozens of air and ground attacks against civilian objects and infrastructure that violate the laws of war. Syria The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians and displaced an estimated 1.4 million people, according to HRW, which cites UN figures.
During his time in Syria, the now 56-year-old was awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.
In February of this year, Surovikin was sanctioned by the European Union as the head of the Aerospace Forces, “for actively supporting and implementing actions and policies that harm and threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability or security in Ukraine”.
Irisov believes that there are three reasons why he is now in office in Ukraine: his proximity to the government and Putin; his cross-branch experience in both the infantry and the air force; and the experience since the summer of Russian forces commanding the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea. These are areas that Putin is trying to control “at any cost”, Irisov said.
Just two days after Surovikin’s appointment on Saturday, Russia launched its heaviest bombing campaign against Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
Surovikin “is more familiar with cruise missiles, perhaps he used his connections and experience to organize this chain of devastating attacks,” Irisov said, noting that cruise missiles were among the weapons deployed by Russia in the latest offensive.
But Clark, of the ISW, suggests the general’s promotion is “one more thing to inject new blood into the Russian command system” and “put on this tough, patriotic face.”
His appointment “received widespread praise from several Russian military bloggers and Yevgeny (Prigozhin), who is a financier at the Wagner Group,” Clark said.
He believes that what is happening now is a reflection of what happened in April, when another commander, Alexander Dvornikov, was appointed commander-in-chief of operations in Ukraine.
“He was also the commander of one of the Russian forces until then and had a reputation similar to Surovikin in Syria for his brutality, earning him the name ‘The Butcher of Aleppo,'” Clark said.
Dvornikov was also seen as a commander who would “turn things around in Ukraine and get the job done,” he added. “But no individual commander will be able to change how messed up Russian command and control is at this point in the war, or the low morale of Russian forces.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, also told CNN this week that Surovikin’s appointment “reflects the rise of many hard-line voices inside Russia … calling on Putin to make changes, and bring about these relentless attacks.” someone who will be there.”
Clarke reasons: “From what we’ve seen, it’s very likely that Putin is involved in decision-making at a very tactical level and, in some cases, above senior Russian military officers to interact directly on the battlefield.”
Surovikin personally signed Irisov’s resignation papers from the air force, he says. Now, Irisov looks set to be put in charge of operations in Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine, but it’s still unclear what overall influence he wants or can have.
According to Clarke, “there is no good chance for the Kremlin if Surovikin doesn’t do it or if Putin decides he’s not up to the task either.” There are not many other Russian officers and this will only lead to further degradation of the Russian war effort”.