Putin will have to destroy Ukraine to save it for Russia and Sergei Surovikin is just the man for the job
Over the weekend, Russian military forces bludgeoned towns and cities across Ukraine with artillery and rocket fire, hitting not only military targets but also civilian residences, electrical power facilities, urban streets, shops and even public parks. More than 80 rockets were fired from the Russian-held east, according to reports.
It was the most concentrated assault on Ukrainian civilians of the war. Nineteen people were killed. This was not just a spasm in response to frustration over battlefield setbacks and, in particular, the damage to a bridge linking occupied Crimea on the Black Sea to the Russian mainland. It is rather an intensification of standard Russian military practice.
Air raid sirens sounded across several regions again Tuesday night. And as if to emphasize the point that there will be more brutality to come, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week appointed a notorious master of civilian assaults to head his invasion force: General Sergei Surovikin, popularly known as “General Armaggedon.”
After weeks of military backpedaling in northeast Ukraine and a parallel Ukrainian offensive in the south, a beleaguered Putin has options. He could respond to sudden public anxiety over the course of the war and the call-up of conscripts by rethinking the wisdom of pursuing the invasion. Or he could double down, heed hawkish critics and escalate.
He has so far chosen the latter, though while facing ammunition and military supply shortages. He took a direct and most vicious route: His new commander lofted rockets at urban centers to put the Ukrainians off balance while, over time, he tries to rebuild his invasion force with a call-up of 300,000 conscripts.
Putin is also increasing economic pressure on Ukraine’s Western supporters and arms suppliers. He got a boost from Saudi Arabia, which, as majordomo of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), organized the reduction of oil supplies and thereby increased the prices to fuel-hungry, net-importing countries worldwide.
Whether all this can reverse battlefield setbacks remains to be seen. The Ukrainians continue to advance on the northeastern front, while in the southeast progress has been slow. On October 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for more weapons from his American and European allies.
Since the war began in February and the invasion failed to meet his expectations of a quick victory, Putin has fired at least six top commanders. He dismissed them not because they were reluctant to kill civilians but because they simply failed to hold territory.
In the first week of the war, the Russians had expected to conquer the Ukrainian capital of Kiev as well as at least three other cities, oust the government and establish their own rule over much of the country.
Instead, his forces labored to conquer the Black Sea port of Mariupol and a stalemate ensued elsewhere. In April, Putin replaced his first loose team of commanders with a single top general, Alexander Dvornikov.
Dvornikov, a veteran of the wars in the Russian province of Chechnya as well as Syria, was dubbed the “Butcher of Syria” in the Western press, though some observers said his assaults on civilian targets were well within the bounds of Russian practice.
“Russian forces targeted Syrian civilians and critical infrastructure throughout the Russian intervention,” The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote. “Dvornikov’s experience commanding the Russian deployment to Syria – and targeting of civilians during that deployment – was also not in itself unique or an indicator of a particular skill set.”
Nor was Dornikov effective. He was replaced in late June by Gennady Zhidko, former commander of Russia’s Eastern Military District and the country’s deputy defense minister. In mysterious circumstances, Zhidko was soon removed and it wasn’t clear until October 7 who was in charge: Surovikin.
If anyone deserved the epithet of “butcher,” it might be Surovikin.
He first gained notoriety during the 1991 attempted coup designed to overthrow then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He commanded a motorized unit that ran over and killed three pro-Gorbachev demonstrators near the Duma legislative offices on Novy Arbat boulevard near the Moscow River.
He was jailed for six months but then released, without charges being brought against him.
Surovikin commanded an armored division in the second war against separatists in Chechnya in the early 2000s.
In February 2005, nine soldiers under his command were killed when a wall collapsed on them. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta said a drunken Russian soldier accidentally blew the wall up with a grenade or land mine.
Surovikin blamed Chechen terrorists and vowed to kill three for every dead Russian. He later defended his account by saying the controversy over it was academic. “In general, you can endlessly say what was done right and what was not,” he told a television interviewer.
The Chechen revolt was eventually crushed; secular rebels were defeated first and then Islamic fundamentalist forces.
For Surovikin it was then off to Moscow – and later, in the second decade of the new millennium, to Syria, where Russia was backing dictator Bashar al-Assad in putting down a revolt.
Although he had no air force experience, Surovikin was put in charge of massive bombing campaigns of rebel-held Syrian cities. Iranian forces and Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah helped Assad on the ground.
The combination kept Assad in power. The cost included the destructive aerial bombing of Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, as well as other towns.
In 2020, Human Rights Watch wrote that Russia’s tactics centered on attacks on dozens of civilian objects and infrastructure. Russian forces under Surovikin’s command struck Syrian “homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study.”
The same is happening now in Ukraine. Clearly, Putin needs to keep Ukraine at bay while he builds up his forces to launch counteroffensives and hold territory. To paraphrase an American commander who was talking about the flagging 1960s war in Vietnam, Putin will have to destroy Ukraine to save it – from the clutches of the democratic West.
If it comes to that, Surovikin is just the person for the job.
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome. More by Daniel Williams