On Tuesday, Ukraine woke up to a second straight day of Russian aerial bombardment targeting critical civilian infrastructure all over the country. Russian missiles slammed into playgrounds and universities, as well as electric power and water plants. Kremlin propagandists told the Russian population that the strikes were aimed at military targets, but on the ground, there wasn’t even a pretense—and the ululating Telegram channels of the nationalist hardliners reflected that.
Vladimir Putin described the attacks as retaliation for the explosion that partly demolished his beloved bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting the Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland. If you look at a map of the area, you realize that Nikita Khrushchev wasn’t, as Putin claims, a dunce and a traitor for making Crimea part of the Ukrainian S.S.R., rather than the Russian S.S.R. It’s a peninsula, and its only connection by land is to Ukraine, not Russia. It’s why Putin sent “volunteers” into eastern Ukraine as soon as he annexed Crimea in March 2014: he needed a land bridge, an easy way to get to this fancy new peninsula he’d stolen from his neighbor, as well as a way of supplying it with water, power, food and all kinds of other vital necessities. Unfortunately for Putin, his forces were stopped at Mariupol by the newly formed Azov Battalion, made up, in part, of far-right Ukrainian nationalists.
Putin had another plan to connect Crimea to the Russian mainland. Less than an hour after announcing the annexation, the Kremlin announced the tender for a state contract to build a bridge across the Kerch Strait, the body of water between Crimea and Russia. Putin gave the $5 billion contract to his childhood judo buddy, Arkady Rotenberg, a man who was such a talented businessman that he became a billionaire in the first decade of Putin’s rule. The bridge, which was supposed to accommodate both car and rail traffic, was a priority for the Kremlin, and unlike every other government project, it was finished ahead of schedule, just in time for Putin’s third reelection, in 2018.
Putin put a lot of stock in that bridge. As a man who thinks often about his historic legacy, he spoke explicitly about how he was able to accomplish a great feat of engineering, of crossing a sea that both Nicholas II and Josef Stalin had attempted, but failed, to conquer.
And so, we can imagine the agony that Putin felt when he discovered, in the early hours of October 8, that his bridge had been engulfed in a massive fireball that completely destroyed one of the two sections that carried automotive traffic, and damaged several kilometers of railway track. It could not have escaped his notice that whoever had planned the bombing just missed his 70th birthday by a few hours. A report later indicated that the driver of the eighteen-wheeler that allegedly carried the explosives onto the bridge was set to detonate them on the day of the Russian president’s jubilee, but had stopped to take a nap.
The Three Casualties
It took Putin 36 hours to respond. On Sunday, in a hastily-staged, televised meeting in Putin’s office with his old college classmate and former K.G.B. buddy, Alexander Bastrykin, the slightly psychotic head of the feared Investigative Committee, the president let his country know that the bridge had been blown up by the Ukrainian special forces in an act of terrorism. Retaliation would be swift. Within hours, cruise missiles and other rockets were flying at every major city in Ukraine, disturbing whatever sense of normalcy had returned to Kyiv, the capital, or Lviv, in the far west.
It was a clear campaign of terror, and many close observers saw the fingerprints of one man: General Sergei Surovikin. A tall, stocky man with a shaved pate and an arched brow, Surovikin looks like a more menacing version of Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. He was appointed to head Russia’s “special military operation” on the day of the bridge calamity, October 8, which was surely no coincidence. The news was hailed by hardliners all across the propaganda machine, from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to television host and propaganda harpy Olga Skabeeva, who reminded everyone that Surovikin’s last name had its roots in the word surovy, meaning harsh or severe, and that his nickname was “General Armageddon.”
Surovikin got his start as a spetsnaz (special forces) officer at the tail end of the Soviet Union’s doomed invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After that point, he began accumulating clouds of dark stories that have followed his ascent through the ranks of the Russian military, clouds which are mostly absent from other top Russian commanders, like General Valery Gerasimov.
On August 18, 1991, the GKChP, or the Government Committee on the State of Emergency, led by K.G.B. hardliners, imprisoned Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in his Crimean dacha, at Foros, and announced that they had staged a coup to prevent the U.S.S.R. from sliding further down Gorbachev’s liberal path into oblivion. In Moscow, protestors, mostly young liberals led by Boris Yeltsin, immediately gathered around the city’s White House, the seat of the young Soviet parliament, to defend it. The coup plotters ordered tanks into the city, which made their way to the parliament building.
A tense standoff ensued but the coup plotters lost their nerve, as did the soldiers manning the tanks. “The soldiers would immediately fraternize with the people, exchange flowers and gifts with the protestors,” said University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky, who is working on a book about the putsch. “But Surovikin, who was a young tank captain at the time, is the only representative of the GKChP who tried to stop the protests through violence. He is one of the only people who took GKChP orders seriously.” According to Gunitsky and contemporaneous accounts, on the third day of the August putsch, when protestors had relaxed into the realization that no one was going to shoot them, Surovikin had still not abandoned his orders. He and his tanks had made it to one of the tunnels leading to the White House. He ordered the protestors to disperse and, when they didn’t, he fired live ammunition and plowed his tank forward. As a result, three young men were killed, one of them crushed to death under the treads. They were the only casualties of the failed coup.
“Assad’s Favorite General”
Surovikin served a few months in jail for the incident but was released on Yeltsin’s personal orders. He was just a young man carrying out orders, Yeltsin reasoned and then he promoted him to major. A few years later, in 1995, Surovikin landed in legal trouble again. He stood accused of selling weapons and military equipment on the black market—an extremely common practice in both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries in the 1990s, when officers traded government military equipment underground just to feed their men. Nonetheless, Surovikin argued that he had been framed. He was found guilty on three charges and given one year’s probation.
Trouble found him again in 2004. In March of that year, major general Surovikin, then serving in Ekaterinburg, beat up an officer for voting the wrong way in the election. A couple months later, Surovikin, who was known for being a harsh disciplinarian who was not above hitting his inferiors, reportedly dressed down a subordinate so harshly that the man pulled out his sidearm and shot himself in the head, right there in the officers’ headquarters.
That same year Surovikin was deployed to Chechnya to fight Putin’s war on terror. Allegations of human rights violations quickly followed. Surovikin himself vowed to kill three Chechens for every dead Russian soldier. Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, which was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, accused his unit of torture, disappearances, and at least one murder.
But he earned his real stripes—and the nickname General Armageddon—in Syria, where Russia intervened in September 2015 to help a flailing Bashar al-Assad hold onto power and claw back territory from the rebels. In Syria, Russia provided air support to the absolutely barbaric war that Syrian and Iranian forces were waging against the Syrian opposition and population. This involved bombing schools, hospitals, aid convoys, and other obviously civilian targets from the air. “If the Russian military showed any qualms about the way in which Assad and his partners were deliberately targeting civilians, I saw no evidence of those qualms,” said Andrew Exum, a former senior Pentagon official, who participated in the Obama administration’s Syria negotiations in 2016. “If Russia saw a way to prosecute the campaign other than the way that Assad was handling it, they didn’t say it. In fact, they were very comfortable with it.”
If anything, according to Hassan Hassan, the founder and editor-in-chief of New Lines Magazine and a leading authority on Syria, Surovikin was “Assad’s favorite general.” A Human Rights Watch report lists Surovikin as one of “the Syrian and Russian civilian and military commanders who may bear command responsibility for violations during the 2019-2020 Idlib offensive,” during which, among other events, sarin gas was dropped on civilians from the air. When victims were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, Russian planes bombed that, too.
But Surovikin’s reputation as “the butcher of Aleppo,” said Hassan, is overstated. Russians helped Assad and the Iranians flatten a small part of Aleppo, and they came in years into a war that had already seen the nadirs of brutality. Moreover, the Russians helped the Assad regime win the war not only through terror. “It wasn’t just an outcome of these brutal tactics, it was also smart politics, which was to engage Syrian rebels,” explained Hassan. “Dividing and conquering was just as important as the brutal tactics.”
That was Putin. As for Surovikin, Hassan said, “people credit him with more than he deserves. The brutality is there, but his appointment is more of a P.R. stunt, an optical move, a way to say that worse is coming.”
So what does Surovikin’s appointment mean for Russia’s “special military operation”? For one thing, it has finally appeased the party of war baying on Putin’s right flank. “Putin’s chef” Evgeny Prigozhin, who owns the private military contractor company Wagner, praised the move, calling Surovikin “a legendary individual who was born to faithfully serve the Motherland.” To get a sense of what it means when Prigozhin praises someone—if you didn’t already get the point when I told you Surovikin was Assad’s favorite general—consider the fact that Prigozhin has been going around Russian prisons and personally recruiting Russian convicts to fight for Wagner in Ukraine. His first choice, he told them in leaked video, were killers, and he bragged that, in battle, his men descend into Ukrainian trenches and “cut out” Kyiv’s soldiers with knives.
In hailing Surovikin’s appointment, the career highlight Prigozhin chose to accent was the one from 1991, when Surovikin crushed a young liberal under his tank. In the Telegram post, Prigozhin admits that he was there, too, but on the wrong side, on the side of the protestors, not realizing that they were all just American puppets, dismantling the great U.S.S.R. Unlike them, Prigozhin wrote, Surovikin “is that officer who, without thinking, when he got his order, got in his tank, and threw himself into the work of saving his country.”
Other than appeasing the local psychopaths like Kadyrov and Prigozhin—which is not nothing when said psychopaths have their own mini-armies—and getting sizzling headlines in the West, what does Surovikin’s appointment actually do?
Not much, argue military observers. Nearly nine months since the Russian invasion, the war is still going very badly for Moscow. On Tuesday, even as Russian bombs rained down on Kyiv, the head of Britain’s spy agency, the GCHQ, said that Ukraine had succeeded in turning the tide of the war and that Russia’s military was “exhausted.” Ukraine is still taking back its territory and Russia is still struggling on the battlefield. It is also struggling to mobilize its men. Within the first two weeks of Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization,” more than 700,000 Russian men had fled the country. The rest have proved so difficult to find that, according to a family friend in Moscow who has received one, officials are giving draft notices to business owners to give to their employees because they can’t find people at home. There have been reports of recruitment officers drafting homeless people directly from shelters.
Things are clearly not going well, and Surovikin, no matter his reputation, can’t change that. “His appointment alone won’t make a difference in this war,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst who heads Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses. “It’s not like Russian tanks start working differently or they find a way to deal with HIMARS because he’s appointed.”
Moreover, continued Kofman, this is probably not a great career move for Surovikin, who had been on the short list for the chief of the general staff. “I don’t think it necessarily means great things for him,” Kofman told me. “Given what’s happening in this war, being appointed head of the special military operation is no high honor, especially considering what happened to his predecessors. The challenge anyone like Surovikin has is that the problems in the Russian military are structural. They have to do with manpower, materiel, and the quality of the force. None of this can be solved easily by changing the commander.”
The same can be said of the brutal bombing campaign of Ukrainian civilian infrasctucture. This is not a Surovikin tactic, nor was it ordered by him. This was the will of Putin, enraged by the bridge and the course of the war. You could tell as much by the fact that he came out and personally explained why the air strikes were happening. Sure, he said they were done on the recommendation of the Defense Ministry, but Putin says a lot of things. The strikes are clearly designed to shatter any sense of normalcy in Ukraine, which was starting to adjust to a war that was becoming concentrated in the east and south. Kyiv, which hadn’t been bombed since June, had returned to something resembling real, bustling city life.
They are also intended to make this winter a hard one, by taking out electricity and water supplies all over Ukraine. A convenient byproduct is that, as a result, Ukraine has announced that it is stopping energy exports to Europe so it can see to its own population’s needs first. All this time, Russian energy was still flowing across Ukrainian territory and into Europe, largely unimpeded. Now, in a nice twofer for Moscow, the strikes will deepen Europe’s deepening energy crisis.
The draft, the air strikes, it is all intended to drag out the war, because Putin hopes that he can outlast and out-suffer his opponents, that he can win simply by being the last man standing atop a pile of charred rubble. Let’s just hope it’s not radioactive, too.