Just two days after being appointed as the first overall commander for the war Surovikin ordered a flurry of rocket attacks against civilian targets
In the wake of the blast on the sole bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula with Russia, which proved an embarrassing blow to the Kremlin, Surovikin, renowned for his merciless manoeuvres, stepped into the ring.
Known as ‘General Armageddon’ Surovikin admitted his army was under pressure from Ukraine's fierce forces and prepared to use the tactics that have gained him such notoriety
Just two days after being appointed as the first overall commander for the war in Ukraine, Surovikin ordered a flurry of rocket attacks against civilian targets, which included a major road junction next to a university and a children’s playground in a park.
Described as “absolutely ruthless, with little regard for human life”, Surovikin told an assembled crowd of elite army personnel at a ceremony in Moscow back in 2017 how, when performing combat missions in Syria, “not for a minute did we forget that we were defending Russia”.
This involved dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report, which said Russian forces under his command struck Syrian “homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study”.
“I am not surprised to see what happened this morning in Kyiv. Surovikin is absolutely ruthless, with little regard for human life,” a former defence ministry official, who has worked with Surovikin, told the Guardian.
“I am afraid his hands will be completely covered in Ukrainian blood.”
In 1991, Surovikin first made his name when he led a rifle division that drove through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters during a coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners.
Three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.
His ruthless reputation had grown to such an extent by 2004 that Russian media reported that a colonel serving under him had killed himself after he received a heated reprimand from Surovikin.
His colleagues have since given him the grim nickname “General Armageddon” for his hardline and unorthodox approach to waging war.
Gleb Irisov, a former air force lieutenant who worked with Surovikin up to 2020, said the new general was one of the few people in the army who “knew how to oversee and streamline different army branches”.
“He is very cruel but also a competent commander,” Irisov said. “But he won’t be able to solve all the problems. Russia is short on weapons and manpower.”
Charles Lister, who is director of the Syria program at the US-based Middle East Institute followed Surovikin’s earlier command of Russian forces in Syria.
“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,” he said
“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 added.
“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.”
Russia’s intervention in Syria was also marked by the increasing involvement of private mercenary companies, in particular Vagner, owned by a St Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, with close ties to the Kremlin.
In February 2018, a group of Vagner mercenaries and Syrian allies attacked a base where Kurdish forces and US advisers were housed, prompting a massive American air strike that killed a “couple hundred Russians.”
The Kremlin awarded Surovikin the Hero of Russia medal – the country’s highest military honor – for his Syrian command. In August 2021, he was promoted to full general.
Four months after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Surovikin commanded the southern group of Russian forces that was later responsible for a grinding assault on the Luhansk region city of Syevyerodonetsk, which fell to Russian forces on June 25.
Surovikin’s promotion was met with plaudits from bloggers and commentators, who had been calling for a harsher approach to the Ukraine fight. That included Prigozhin, who called him “the most competent commander in the Russian Army.”
“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.”
Two days later, Russia pummeled Ukraine with missiles.