Russia appoints notorious general to lead Ukraine offensive
Sergei Surovikin appointed on same day as explosion on Kerch bridge that has dealt blow to Vladimir Putin
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Sergei Surovikin with Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria, in 2017. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AP
Andrew Roth in MoscowSat 8 Oct 2022 16.15 BST Last modified on Sat 8 Oct 2022 16.50 BST
Russia has appointed a notorious general who opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in the 1990s as its first overall commander for the war in Ukraine, as the Kremlin struggles to halt a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has left its forces in disarray.
The appointment of Gen Sergei Surovikin came on the same day as Vladimir Putin was dealt a humiliating blow after an explosion on the Kerch bridge sank a section of the motorway into the Kerch Strait and caused a major fire on the railway.
Surovikin is a veteran commander who led the Russian military expedition in Syria in 2017, where he was accused of using “controversial” tactics including indiscriminate bombing against anti-government fighters.Kerch bridge blast: CCTV footage appears to show moment of explosion – video
His appointment is the first of an overall battlefield commander for Russian troops in Ukraine. It may indicate that Moscow now understands that its military is in danger of collapse in Ukraine, with Kyiv’s forces advancing in all four of the regions that Putin claims to have “annexed”.
A former head of the Russian Aerospace Forces, Surovikin was installed in the summer as head of the southern military grouping, replacing Gen Alexander Dvornikov, who lasted just months in the position.
He is seen as having improved the effectiveness of Russian forces fighting in east Ukraine, where poor communication and cooperation has plagued the Russian invasion force.
Yet Surovikin also has a checkered history that includes two stints in jail for allegedly selling weapons and for leading a military column against protesters during the 1991 coup. He has also previously served in Tajikistan and Chechnya.
“For over 30 years, Surovikin’s career has been dogged with allegations of corruption and brutality,” wrote British intelligence officials in a recent report on Surovikin’s likely promotion to lead the southern military group.
During the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, Surovikin, then a captain, led a rifle division that drove through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. Three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.
“It is highly symbolic that Sergei Surovikin, the only officer who ordered to shoot on revolutionaries in August 1991 and actually killed three people, is now in charge of this last-ditch effort to restore Soviet Union,” wrote Grigory Yudin, a Russian political scientist and sociologist. “These people knew what they were doing, and they know now.”
With the appointment, the Kremlin may also be seeking to combat criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use harsh tactics to try to force the Kyiv government to submit.
Among Russians who welcomed the appointment of Surovikin was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious founder of the Wagner private military company and a vocal critic of the military leadership.
“Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army,” Prigozhin said, according to a statement put out by Concord, a company he is associated with. He is a “legendary figure, he was born to serve his motherland faithfully.”