Deep dive: “General Armageddon” at the helm of the Russian invasion
Written by: Val Stutz, edited by: Clary Estes
October 24th marked eight months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. In that time, approximately 7.7 million refugees have fled Ukraine and over eight million Ukrainians have been displaced within the country itself. The Russian military has become infamous for its targeting of Ukrainian civilians—the destruction of Mariupol along with the massacres in Bucha, Irpen, Hostomel, and most recently Izium, have been well-documented by multiple international news outlets.
More recently, on October 8th, General Sergey Surovikin was appointed as the new overall battlefield commander of Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, a notorious Russian general who commanded Russian forces in Syria in 2017, replaced General Aleksandr Dvornikov as the chief commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Much like his predecessor Surovikin is remembered for his ruthless tactics in Syria. Survovkin, a devout follower of Putin’s regime and servant of the Kremlin’s interests, stated in a speech at a 2017 military ceremony in Moscow: “When performing combat missions in Syria, not for a minute did we forget that we were defending Russia.”
According to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report, Surovikin’s defense of Russian interests in Syria involved several air and ground attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure. Russian forces under his command struck Syrian homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets. Just two days after being appointed chief commander for the war in Ukraine, Surovikin ordered several rocket attacks against civilian targets across Ukraine. Surovikin’s brutal and ruthless approach to war has earned him the nickname General Armageddon among his colleagues.
Since General Surovikin appointment it has been notable that the ministry did not specify who exactly Surovikin was replacing (although many sources indicate that he is indeed the successor to Dvornikov). Surovikin has decades of military experience, which date back to the Soviet Union, and is a veteran of multiple wars including the Soviet-Afghan War, the Tajikistan Civil War, the Second Chechen War, and of course Russia’s intervention in Syria.
As the nickname General Armageddon suggests, Surovikin has earned his reputation with a military history that extends beyond war crimes in Syria. He also served in a spetsnaz unit during the Soviet-Afghan War and Surovkin first gained notoriety during the 1991 coup d'etat attempt in Moscow, which was launched by pro-Soviet hardliners. There, he led a motor rifle division that drove through barricades erected by pro-democracy demonstrators. Three of these demonstrators were killed in the process, including one who was crushed.
Surovikin was subsequently imprisoned for a time as a result of his leading this military column against these demonstrators (He was also imprisoned a second time for the alleged illegal sale of weapons). His ruthless reputation grew even more in 2004 when Russian media reported that a colonel who served under him committed suicide after having received a heated reprimand. Not only has Surovikin lived up to his nickname, but he has also demonstrated his effectiveness as a competent military leader—at least in the eyes of the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Unsettling nicknames and violent attacks on civilian targets are nothing new among the Russian high command. His predecessor Aleksandr Dvornikov, who was known as the Butcher of Syria, also gained similar attention from various international news outlets when he was appointed chief commander of Russian forces in Ukraine back in April.
While Russian forces have continued their occupation of Southern and Eastern Ukraine—which included persistent attacks against civilian targets under Dvornikov’s command—the Russian military has not yet achieved any significant strategic goals. Rather, the Russian military continues to show a lack of organization with many wondering about the military’s overall level of competence. This is partially due to: the Russian military employing an archaic military structure based on outdated battlefield tactics; a highly-corrupt, dysfunctional, and inefficient chain of command; poor logistics; obsolete and poorly maintained equipment; and poor training programs, especially among conscripted personnel. Appointing boogeymen such as Aleksandr Dvornikov and Sergey Sirovikin as the chief commanders, so far, has had no impact on Russia’s military goals in Ukraine.
It is also worth noting that at the start of Russia’s invasion, there was no official commander for all Russian forces. Instead, there were several high-ranking generals deployed to Ukraine, each one was assigned to a command post on one of the various fronts. The Russian war machine immediately lost momentum shortly after the invasion started, and there were several blunders on all fronts. The first phase of the war was primarily known for the Kyiv offensive, when Russian forces attempted to seize the Ukrainian capital in a quick and decisive victory. This phase lasted from the start of the invasion, February 24th until April 4th, when Russian troops withdrew from the regions around Kyiv.
Following the start of the second phase, when the Russian army focused its efforts on seizing the eastern region of Donbas, General Dvornikov was placed in charge of all Russian forces in Ukraine. However, his tenure did not last long, with reports from Russian troops in June that Dvornikov had been quietly replaced by General Gennady Zhidko as the new chief commander of Russian forces. Up until October, there have been conflicting reports as to whether or not Dvornikov was still in charge.
It is also notable that both Dvornikov and Surovkin were appointed during moments of significant humiliation for Russia in Ukraine. Shortly after Alexander Dvornikov was appointed as the chief commander of Russian forces, the Moskva, Russia’s flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, was sunk by Ukrainian Neptune cruise missiles. The infamous warship led the naval assault on Ukraine, which made it a significant military target for the Ukrainians. Despite the Kremlin’s lack of commentary on this incident, this was a significant loss to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Surovikin’s rise to the overall commander of Russian forces also comes in the wake of a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive that has liberated several territories in the country’s eastern and southern regions, as well as during a series of illegal sham referendums held by Russian-occupied territories in the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson.
However, more notably, Surovikin was appointed on the day a massive explosion damaged the Kerch bridge. The bridge along the Kerch Strait is a significant piece of infrastructure in that it is the only bridge that connects mainland Russia to Crimea, Ukraine’s southern territory that Russia annexed in 2014. The bombing of the Kerch bridge was also a personal blow to Vladimir Putin, as the bridge was a source of pride for him and a symbol of Russia’s claim to Crimea. Furthermore, the bridge was a significant military target for the Ukrainians because it provided a convenient supply route to Crimea for the Russian military.
In what appeared to be a blatant act of revenge killings against the Ukrainian populace, the Russian military has launched hundreds of Iranian-made kamikaze drones over the last month following the explosion of the bridge, marking yet another grim and violent chapter of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. As Russia continues to target civilian infrastructure, especially after destroying thirty percent of Ukraine’s power stations, new difficulties will unfold for Ukrainian troops and civilians as the winter months approach. But the Ukrainians still have the upper hand as Western allies continue to supply them with heavy weapons, equipment, and tons of military and humanitarian aid, whereas the Russians are running low on weapons and equipment, as well as basic supplies such as food and warm clothing for their troops.
The shortage of Russia’s army supplies has been highlighted recently after Vladimir Putin called for a partial mobilization at the end of September, which has sparked a strong reaction across the Russian Federation that has manifested in a mass exodus of young, conscription-age Russian men to neighboring countries (at least the countries that are still allowing Russian citizens to enter).
As the war in Ukraine slowly moves into its second winter, new challenges lie ahead for both the Ukrainians and the Russians, yet the Ukrainians’ morale is much higher compared to the Russians. As for General Surovikin, his role as the overall commander of Russia’s forces was a morale booster to some Russian hardliners and top critics of the war effort, especially the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the head of the infamous Wagner mercenary group (an organization we will touch upon in our next deep dive),Yevgeny Prigozhin.
However, even Surovikin cannot deny the immense failure of Russia’s operations, having admitted that the situation in Ukraine is tense for his troops. Whether or not General Armageddon’s role as the Russians’ chief commander will have an impact on the war is still to be determined.