Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s new top commander in Ukraine, has a reputation for brutality


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s devastating war against Ukraine is stalling. Now there’s a new general known for his brutality.

After Ukraine recently reclaimed more territory than the Russian army had taken in the past six months, the Russian Defense Ministry last Saturday named Sergei Surovikin as its new commander in chief for wartime operations.

In particular, previously as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces, he played a key role in Russian operations in Syria, where Russian warplanes wreaked widespread havoc in rebel-held areas.

CNN spoke to a former Russian Air Force lieutenant, Gleb Irisov, who served under him in Syria.

He said Surovikin was “very close to the Putin regime” and “never had any political ambitions, so always executed a plan exactly as the government wanted.”

Analysts say Surovikin’s appointment is unlikely to change the way Russian forces conduct the war, but that it speaks to Putin’s dissatisfaction with previous commando operations. According to Mason Clark, Russia Lead at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think-tank, it is also likely to “appease” the nationalist and pro-war base in Russia itself.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who called on Russia to take “more drastic measures” after recent setbacks, including using “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine, welcomed the appointment of Surovikin, who first saw action in Afghanistan in 1980 , before commanding a unit in the Second Chechen War in 2004. The praise of Kadyrov, a key Putin ally, is perhaps significant as he himself is notorious for quashing all forms of dissent.

“Personally, I have known Sergei very well for almost 15 years. I can definitely say that he is a real general and warrior, an experienced, headstrong and forward-thinking commander who always puts patriotism, honor and respect above all else,” Kadyrov posted on social media after news of Surovikin’s appointment last Saturday. “The combined army group is now in safe hands,” he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with members of the Russian armed forces who have taken part in operations in Syria, including Sergei Surovikin, at the Kremlin December 28, 2017.

Irisov, Surovikin’s former subordinate, ended his five-year career in the armed forces after his time in Syria because his own political views were at odds with what he had experienced. “Of course you understand who is right and who is wrong,” Irisov said. “I witnessed a lot of things while I was in the system.”

Irisov then began what he hoped would be the beginning of a career as an international journalist, as a military reporter with the Russian state news agency TASS. His wife worked there, and he considered it at the time “the only major news agency” trying to break news in an “unbiased” manner, with “some opportunity for free speech,” he said.

Gleb Irisov is pictured early in his military career during winter military training near Moscow, Russia.

Gleb Irisov is pictured during his service with the Russian Air Force in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave.

“Everything changed” on February 24, 2022, when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began and TASS received orders from the FSB’s security service and defense ministry “that anyone will be prosecuted if they don’t carry out the propaganda plan,” Irisov said.

He had family in Kyiv hiding in bomb shelters and told CNN he knew “nothing can justify this war.” He also knew from his military contacts that there were already many casualties in the first days of the war.

“It was clear to me from the start,” Irisov recalls. “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 has 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.

Gleb Irisov is pictured with his wife Alisa Irisova in the last photo taken before they left Russia by air for Armenia in March 2022.

During his service at Latakia Air Force Base in Syria in 2019 and 2020, the 31-year-old said he worked in aviation security and air traffic control, coordinating flights with Damascus’ civil airlines. He says he saw Surovikin several times during some missions and spoke to senior officers below him.

“He made a lot of people very angry – they hated him,” Irisov said, describing how the “direct” and “straightforward” general was disliked at headquarters for trying to bring his infantry experience to the Luftwaffe.

Irisov says he understands Surovikin had strong ties to the Kremlin-sanctioned private military company, the Wagner Group, which has operated in Syria.

The Kremlin denies any connection to Wagner and insists that private military contractors are illegal in Russia.

Surovikin, whose military career began in 1983, has a turbulent history, to say the least.

In 2004, according to reports in the Russian media and at least two think tanks, he insulted a subordinate so violently that the subordinate took his own life.

And a book by the Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation says that during the unsuccessful attempted coup against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, soldiers under Surovikin’s command killed three protesters, resulting in Surovikin spending at least six months in prison.

CNN has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on Surovikin’s appointment and allegations of his tough leadership.

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch called him “someone who may have direct responsibility for dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure in violation of the laws of war during the 2019-2020 Idlib offensive.” Syria. The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians and forced the displacement of an estimated 1.4 million people, according to HRW, citing UN figures.

Vladimir Putin (left) clink glasses with then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev alongside Sergei Surovikin after state awards were presented to military personnel who fought in Syria December 28, 2017.

During his time in Syria, the now 56-year-old was awarded the title “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 policies and policies which undermine the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability or security and threaten in Ukraine.”

Irisov believes there are three reasons he is now in charge of Ukraine: his closeness to the government and to Putin; his cross-industry experience in both infantry and air force; and his experience since the summer as a commander of Russian forces in the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhia and Crimea. These are areas that Putin is trying to control “at all costs,” Irisov said.

Just two days after Surovikin’s appointment on Saturday, Russia launched its heaviest bombardment of 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, citing reports that cruise missiles were among the weapons used by Russia in this latest wave of attacks.

But the ISW’s Clark suggests that the general’s promotion is “more of a framework thing to inject new blood into the Russian command system” and “put that tough nationalist face on”.

His appointment “received widespread praise from various Russian military bloggers, as well as Yevgeny (Prigozhin), the financier of the Wagner group,” Clark said.

He believes what is happening now is a reflection of what happened in April, when another commander, Alexander Dvornikov, was appointed supreme commander of operations in Ukraine.

“Similarly, he was previously commander of one of the Russian Forces’ formations and had some reputation in Syria as a master of brutality, similar to Surovikin, which earned him the nickname ‘Butcher of Aleppo,'” Clark said.

Dvornikov was also seen then as the commander “who would turn things around in Ukraine and get the job done,” he added. “But a single commander will not be able to change how confused Russian command and control is at this point in the war, or the low morale of Russian forces.”

Colonel General Sergey Surovikin, then commander of Russia's forces in Syria, speaks at a briefing at the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, June 9, 2017.

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 insistent voices in Russia … calling on Putin to make changes, and bring someone on.” , who would be willing to carry out these ruthless attacks.

Clark argues that “from what we’ve seen, it’s very likely that Putin is involved in decision-making down to a very tactical level, and in some cases bypassing 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 himself tasked with operations in Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine – but what impact the general will or may have is not yet clear.

According to Clark, “There is no good Kremlin option if Surovikin doesn’t appear, or if Putin decides he’s not up to the task either. There are not many other senior Russian officers and it will only further worsen the Russian war effort.”


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