Russian President Vladimir Putin’s devastating war on Ukraine is faltering. Now, there’s a new general in charge – with a reputation for brutality.
After Ukraine recently recaptured more territory than Russia’s army took in the last six months, Russia’s Ministry of Defense last Saturday named Sergey Surovikin as its new overall commander for operations in the war.
Notably, he previously played an instrumental role in Russia’s operations in Syria – during which Russian combat aircraft caused widespread devastation in rebel-held areas – as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
CNN spoke to 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 always executed a plan exactly as the government wanted.”
Analysts say Surovikin’s appointment is highly unlikely to change how Russian forces are carrying out the war but that it speaks to Putin’s dissatisfaction with previous command operations. It is also, in part, likely meant to “mollify” the nationalist and pro-war base within Russia itself, according to Mason Clark, Russia Lead at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think-tank.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called for Russia to “take more drastic measures” including the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine following recent setbacks, welcomed the appointment of Surovikin, who first saw service in Afghanistan in the 1980s before commanding a unit in the Second Chechen War in 2004. Praise from Kadyrov, who is a key Putin ally, is significant, perhaps, as he himself is notorious for crushing all forms of dissent.
“I personally have known Sergei very well for almost 15 years. I can definitely say he is a real general and warrior, experienced, headstrong and foresighted commander who always takes patriotism, honor and respect above all,” Kadyrov posted on social media, following news of Surovikin’s appointment last Saturday. “The united army group is now in safe hands,” he added.
Irisov, Surovikin’s former subordinate, left his five-year career in the armed forces after his time in Syria because his own political views conflicted with what he experienced. “Of course, you understand, who is right and who is wrong,” Irisov said. “I witnessed a lot of stuff, being inside the system.”
Irisov then began what he hoped would be the start of a career as an international journalist, as a military reporter with Russian state news agency TASS. His wife worked there and he felt at the time it was “the only main information agency” that tried to cover news in an “unbiased” way, with “some opportunity of freedom of 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 defense ministry “that everyone will be prosecuted if they don’t execute the propaganda scheme,” Irisov said.
He had family in Kyiv, hiding in bomb shelters, and told CNN he knew “nothing could justify this war.” He also knew from his military contacts that there were already many casualties in the first days of the war.
“For me it was obvious from the beginning,” Irisov recalled. “I tried to explain to people 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 standing against the invasion. He had quit his job at TASS and signed petitions and an open letter against the war, he told CNN. After traveling to Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and finally Mexico, where they contacted the US embassy to ask for help, they are now working to start a new life in West Virginia.
While serving at Latakia air base in Syria in 2019 and 2020, the 31-year-old says he worked on aviation safety and air traffic control, coordinating flights with Damascus’ civilian airlines. He says he saw Surovikin several times during some missions and spoke to high-ranking officers under him.
“He made a lot of people very angry – they hated him,” Irisov said, describing how the “direct” and “straight” general was disliked at headquarters because of the way he tried to implement his infantry experience into the air force.
Irisov says he understands Surovikin had strong connections with Kremlin-approved private military company the Wagner group, which has operated in Syria.
The Kremlin denies any connections 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, he berated a subordinate so severely that the subordinate took his own life.
And a book by the think tank the Washington DC-based Jamestown Foundation says that during the unsuccessful coup attempt against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, soldiers under Surovikin’s command killed three protesters, leading to Surovikin spending at least six months in prison.
CNN has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment on Surovikin’s appointment and regarding allegations about his harsh leadership.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch named him as “someone who may bear command responsibility” for the dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure in violation of the laws of war” during the 2019-2020 Idlib offensive in Syria. The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians and forced the displacement of 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 this year, Surovikin was sanctioned by the European Union in his capacity as head of the Aerospace Forces “for actively supporting and implementing actions and policies that undermine and threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as well as the stability or security in Ukraine.”
Irisov believes there are three reasons why he has been put in charge in Ukraine now: his closeness to the government and Putin; his interbranch experience with both the infantry and air force; and his experience since the summer commanding Russian forces in the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea. These are areas that Putin is trying to control “at any cost,” said Irisov.
Just two days after Surovikin’s appointment on Saturday, Russia launched its heaviest bombardment of Ukraine since the early days of the war.
Surovikin is “more familiar with cruise missiles, maybe he used his connections and experience to organize this chain of devastating attacks,” Irisov said, referencing the reports that cruise missiles have been among the weapons deployed by Russia in this latest surge of attacks.
But Clark, from the ISW, suggests the general’s promotion is “more of a framing thing to inject new blood into the Russian command system” and “put on this tough nationalist face.”
His appointment “got widespread praise from various Russian military bloggers as well as Yevgeny (Prigozhin), who’s the financier of the Wagner Group,” Clark said.
He believes what’s happening now is a reflection of what happened in April, when another commander, Alexander Dvornikov, was appointed overall commander of the operations in Ukraine.
“Similarly, he before then was a commander of one of the groupings of Russian forces and had sort of a master reputation in Syria much like Surovikin for brutality, earning this sort of name of the ‘butcher of Aleppo,’” Clark said.
Dvornikov was also seen at the time as the commander “that was going to turn things around in Ukraine and get the job done,” he added. “But an individual commander is not going to be able to change how tangled 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 ascendancy of a lot of hardline voices inside Russia… calling on Putin to make changes, and to bring in someone who would be willing to execute these ruthless attacks.”
Clark reasons that “from what we’ve seen, it’s highly probable that Putin is involved in decision-making down to a very tactical level and in some cases bypassing the 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 sees him put in charge of operations in Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine – but what impact the general will or can have is not yet clear.
According to Clark, “there isn’t a good Kremlin option if Surovikin doesn’t perform or if Putin decides that he is also not up to the task. There aren’t many other senior Russian officers and it’s just going to lead to a further degradation of the Russian war effort.”