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Russia’s General Sergei Surovikin is no stranger to mass murder and spreading terror.
In Chechnya, the shaven-headed veteran officer, who has the physique of a wrestler and an expression to match, vowed to “destroy three Chechen fighters for every Russian soldier killed.” And he is remembered bitterly in northern Syria for reducing much of the city of Aleppo to ruins.
The 56-year-old air force general also oversaw the relentless targeting of clinics, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in rebel-held Idlib in 2019, an effort to break opponents’ will and send refugees fleeing to Europe via neighboring Turkey. The 11-month campaign “showed callous disregard for the lives of roughly 3 million civilians in the area,” noted Human Rights Watch in a scathing report.
Now he is repeating his Syrian playbook in Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin appointed Surovikin as the overall commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation,” to the delight of Moscow’s hawks. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised Surovikin as “a real general and a warrior.” He will “improve the situation,” Kadyrov added in a social media post.
But reversing a series of stunning Ukrainian battlefield victories and shifting the tide of the war may be beyond even the ruthless Surovikin. Ukrainians have shown throughout the year they’re made of stern stuff and aren’t going to be intimidated by war crimes — and they’ve endured bombings and bombardments before by equally unscrupulous Russian generals.
But Western military officials and analysts note that there are already signs of more tactical coherence than was seen under his predecessor General Alexander Dvornikov. “His war tactics totally breach the rules of war but unfortunately they proved effective in Syria,” a senior British military intelligence officer told POLITICO. “As a war strategist he has a record of effectiveness – however vicious,” the officer added.
Surovikin and other officials point to the targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with a massive wave of attacks last week. Strikes at the weekend resulted in power outages across the country leaving more than a million households without electricity, the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidency, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Saturday.
“These are vile strikes on critical objects,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “The world can and must stop this terror,” he said. “The geography of this latest mass strike is very wide,” Zelenskyy added. “Of course we don’t have the technical ability to knock down 100 percent of the Russian missiles and strike drones. I am sure that, gradually, we will achieve that, with the help of our partners. Already now, we are downing a majority of cruise missiles, a majority of drones.”
Intercepting a majority of what’s being fired by the Russians at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, though, isn’t enough to halt the disruption Surovikin is endeavoring to provoke with the strikes. The scale of the damage caused to Ukraine’s power system at the weekend exceeded what was inflicted in the first wave of strikes on energy infrastructure on October 10, according to a Telegram post by Ukrenergo, the state grid operator.
Around a third of the country’s power stations have been destroyed since the attacks began, Ukrainian authorities say.
And for Russia the cost of the aerial assault is cheap, relying as it does on Iran’s Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, basically flying bombs nicknamed “kamikaze drones” because they are destroyed on impact.
The drones, which have a flying range of 2,500 kilometers, loiter over a target until ordered to attack. With a wingspan of 2.5 meters they can be difficult to identify on radar and cost only an estimated €20,000 to make, compared, say, to cruise missiles costing up to €2 million to produce.
Last week the White House said Iranian drone experts — trainers and tech support workers — have been deployed on the ground in Russia-annexed Crimea to help launch attacks on Ukraine. “Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground, and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” said national security spokesman John Kirby.
But turning to Iran for assistance also demonstrates Russian weakness, says a Pentagon adviser. That they are using Iranian drones suggests that they are really running out of missiles. “I don’t think their capabilities are anyway as good as they claim. I’ve always thought that the Russians were a bit of a hollow force. They don’t have depth in range with capabilities and they can’t really apply them very effectively. The fact that they’re going to Iranians for drone technology, that’s a pretty sad statement about the once vaunted Russian military-industrial or Soviet military-industrial complex,” the adviser told POLITICO.
And while the drones are helping to cause considerable damage, their light explosive payloads at 36kg present the Russians with a problem – they are not powerful enough to cause ‘decommissioning’ damage to big power stations and so are being aimed at smaller sub-stations instead . Eventually, too, Western and Ukrainian experts will find ways to jam the GPS system the drones depend on to shift them off target. So, they may have a short shelf life of effectiveness, say Western officials.
Not having sufficient depth in terms of capabilities is not the only problem facing Russian generals. One of the most debilitating problems for the Russians has been the lack of small-unit leadership and competent supervision on the battlefield.
The Ukrainians since 2014 have been steeped in US military doctrine and training, which focuses on building a professional corps of corporals and sergeants who understand the big picture and are given the delegated authority to make decisions on the battlefield as they lead their units, according to John Barranco, an analyst at the Atlantic Council who oversaw the US Marines’ initial operations in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served in Iraq.
The failure of the Russians to build up such a cadre has plagued them in Ukraine and it is not a deficiency Surovikin has time to rectify. In fact, the situation is likely to worsen with the Kremlin now throwing into battle inadequately trained conscripts from Putin’s partial mobilization order.
After just a handful of days’ training, conscripts are already dying. And draftees are being sent to what is now the crucial front in this stage of the war — the southern port city of Kherson — where Russian authorities have ordered all residents to leave ahead of a closing advance by Ukrainian troops.
Kherson city is the only regional capital Russia has managed to seize since the invasion began. It was a key prize in establishing a land bridge between Crimea and Ukraine’s south, as well as opening the way for a potential assault on the major Black Sea port of Odesa.
But a Ukrainian counter-offensive that started in the summer is now bearing down on Kherson city. Russia’s tactical position in the area is highly compromised, with units of paratroopers dug in on the west bank of the Dnieper River, where they are highly vulnerable. “From a battlefield geometry point of view, it is a terrible position for the Russians,” Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told POLITICO.
Watling, who’s been conducting operational analysis with Ukraine’s general staff, says the Russians on the west bank are among their most capable troops but can’t be resupplied reliably “at the scale needed to make them competitive” and they won’t be able to counter-attack.
“The Ukrainians have the initiative and can dictate the tempo,” Watling said. “From a purely military point of view, the Russians would be much better off withdrawing from Kherson city and focusing on holding the river [from the east bank] and then putting the bulk of their forces on the Zaporizhzhia axis, but for political reasons they have been slow to do that and seem to be ready to fight a delaying action.”
That seems in line with what Ukraine’s general staff reported at the weekend. Russian troop movements have been occurring in the Kherson region with some units preparing for urban combat, while others have been withdrawing.
In short, Surovikin is being forced to try to pull off one of the most difficult military maneuvers — an orderly retreat to reposition forces, including draftees with scant training and units that have no cohesion. When more experienced Russian troops tried the same move near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine last month, they suffered a rout.
Thuggery alone won’t save Russian conscripts from motivated and agile Ukrainian forces. Whether Surovikin has the tactical skills to navigate a dangerous retreat will be what counts.