(CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s devastating war against 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 military took in the past six months, the Russian Defense Ministry last Saturday appointed Sergey Surovikin as its new overall commander of operations in the war.
He previously played a critical role in Russia’s operations in Syria, during which Russian warplanes caused widespread devastation in rebel-held areas, as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
CNN spoke with a former Russian air force lieutenant, Gleb Irisov, who served under him in Syria.
He said that Surovikin was “very close to the Putin regime” and that he “never had political ambitions, so he always executed a plan exactly as the government wanted.”
Analysts say Surovikin’s appointment is highly unlikely to change the way Russian forces conduct war, but that it speaks to Putin’s dissatisfaction with previous command operations. It is also likely intended to “soften” the nationalist and pro-war base within Russia itself, according to Mason Clark, Russia leader at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank. in English).
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called on Russia to “take more drastic measures” including the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine after recent setbacks, welcomed the appointment of Surovikin, who entered service by first time in Afghanistan in the 1980s before commanding a unit in the Second Chechen War in 2004. The praise for Kadyrov, who is a key Putin ally, is significant, perhaps, since he himself is known for crushing all forms of dissent.
“I personally have known Sergei very well for almost 15 years. I can definitely say that he is a true general and warrior, an experienced, headstrong and farsighted commander who always puts patriotism, honor and respect above all else,” Kadyrov posted on social media, following the news of Surovikin’s appointment. last Saturday. “The united army group is now in good hands,” he added.
“they hated him”
Irisov, a former subordinate of Surovikin, left his five-year career in the military 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 things, being inside the system.”
Irisov then began what he hoped would be the beginning of a career as an international journalist, as a military reporter at the Russian state news agency TASS. His wife worked there, and at the time he felt it was “the only central information agency” trying to cover the news in an “unbiased” way, with “some opportunity for free 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 the Ministry of Defense that “everyone will be prosecuted if they do not execute the scheme of propaganda,” Irisov said.
He had family in Kyiv, hiding in bomb shelters, and he told CNN he knew “nothing could justify this war.” She also knew from her military contacts that there were already many casualties in the early days of the war.
“It was obvious to me from the beginning,” Irisov recalled. “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 the Ukrainians but also for Russia.”
Irisov fled Moscow with his pregnant wife and young son on March 8, 2022, after opposing the invasion. He resigned from 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 for help, they are now working to start a new life in West Virginia.
While serving at Syria’s Latakia air base in 2019 and 2020, the 31-year-old says he worked in aviation security and air traffic control, coordinating flights with Damascus’ civilian airlines. He says that he saw Surovikin several times during some missions and spoke with 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 force. aerial.
Irisov says he understands that Surovikin had strong connections to the Kremlin-approved private military company, the Wagner Group, which has operated in Syria.
The Kremlin denies any connection to Wagner and insists that private military companies are illegal in Russia.
The title of “hero”
Surovikin, whose military career began in 1983, has a checkered history, to say the least.
In 2004, according to Russian media reports and at least two think tanks, he reprimanded a subordinate so severely that the subordinate took his own life.
And a book by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think tank says that during the failed coup attempt against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, soldiers under Surovikin’s command killed three protesters, leading to Surovikin to spend 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 harsh leadership.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch named him as “someone who may have 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 Idlib offensive. -2020 in 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.
During his stay in Syria, Surovikin, who is now 56 years 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 cross-branch experience with the infantry and air force; and his experience since the summer commanding 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 biggest bombing raid on Ukraine since the first days 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, referencing reports that cruise missiles have been among the weapons deployed by Russia in this latest wave of attacks.
But ISW’s Clark suggests the general’s promotion is “rather a framework to inject new blood into the Russian command system” and “put on this tough nationalist face.”
His appointment “received widespread praise from a number of Russian military bloggers, as well as Yevgeny (Prigozhin), who is the financier of the Wagner Group,” Clark said.
He believes that what is happening now is a reflection of what happened in April, when another commander, Alexander Dvornikov, was appointed overall commander of the Ukraine operations.
“Similarly, before that he was a commander of one of the Russian force groupings and had a reputation as a captain in Syria very similar to Surovikin for his brutality, earning him the nickname ‘butcher of Aleppo,’” Clark said.
Dvornikov was also seen at the time as the commander “who was going to turn things around in Ukraine and get the job done,” he added. “But one commander alone will not be able to change how enmeshed Russian command and control is at this point in the war, or the low morale of the 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 many hardline voices within Russia … urging Putin to make changes and to bring in someone who would be willing to execute these ruthless attacks.”
Clark reasons that “from what we have seen, it is 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 in the field of action.” battle”.
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 it remains unclear what impact the general will or may have.
According to Clark, “there is no good option for the Kremlin if Surovikin does not work or if Putin decides that he is not up to it either. There are not many other senior Russian officers and it will only lead to further degradation of the Russian war effort.”