Russian General Surovikin dubbed 'Butcher of Syria' disappears amid incoming Putin 'purge of Wagner collaborators'

Russian General Surovikin dubbed 'Butcher of Syria' disappears amid incoming Putin 'purge of Wagner collaborators'
In the aftermath of the aborted mutiny by the Wagner Group in Russia, a highly-decorated Russian general who reportedly knew about the coup attempt has not been seen in public since Saturday.
4 min read
29 June, 2023
General Sergey Surovikin is believed to have formed a working relationship with Wagner during his tenure as commander of Russia's brutal intervention in Syria [Getty]

A Russian general who previously led the invasion force in Ukraine has allegedly gone missing, with US intelligence claiming he had prior warning of the aborted mutiny led by the commander of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

General Sergei Surovikin has apparently not been seen publicly since Saturday. Reports suggest he may have been arrested as part of the Russian government's purge of Prigozhin collaborators following his botched mutiny. The New Arab could not verify these reports.

This comes amid speculations Putin is launching a broader crackdown following a closed-door meeting with Russian media figures at the Kremlin, according to The New York Times. In the meeting, he presented himself as a leader in total control, and said he was delving into Mr. Prigozhin’s business contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, according to the NYT.

Surovikin is the current Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the former supreme commander of Moscow’s forces in Ukraine from 2022-2023. The general is known to have strong links to Prigozhin and Wagner, with both having shown mutual support for each other within Russia's military hierarchy. 

At the time of his appointment in Ukraine, Prigozhin welcomed Surovikin’s appointment in Ukraine, calling him “a legendary figure” who was “born to serve his motherland”, according to The Guardian. Surovkin has been described as “represent[ing] Wagner’s interests within Russia’s senior commanders”.

The Syria connection

Surovikin was appointed the Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria in 2017, at a time when Wagner’s operations in that country massively expanded. The group went from having around 3000 personnel in Syria in 2015, at the beginning of Russia’s intervention on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to having around 5000 in the first year of Surovikin’s watch in 2017.

It was in Syria that Surovikin developed a good working relationship with Wagner.  

The general was lauded within Russia for his role in allegedly changing the fortunes of the Assad regime in his brutal war against rebel forces, even being named as a Hero of the Russian Federation, Russia’s highest honour.

However, critics and rights groups point out that under Surovikin’s tenure in Syria saw an intensification of atrocities, with Russia’s campaigns of targeting civilian areas of rebel-held Syria increasing . Surovikin has been named as a potential war criminal for his military role in Syria, with some Syrians dubbing him the "Butcher of Syria". It was also under Surovikin’s command in Syria that Russian Wagner mercenaries were filmed torturing and murdering a young Syrian Army deserter, beating him to death with a sledgehammer, beheading him and then setting his body on fire.

Both Surovikin and Prigozhin are said to have in common their ‘old school’ belief in brutal and extreme tactics in warfare, with Prigozhin's vicious outlook permeating throughout Wagner, while Surovikin has been described as "absolutely ruthless, with little regard for human life".

Russian army collusion?

Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian military leaders in Ukraine ramped up when Surovikin  was replaced in January as the head of the so-called ‘special military operation’ by Valery Gerasimov, who has been a constant target of the Wagner boss’s rants

It is these well-publicised links that have fuelled the rumours that Surovikin might have been purged or placed under investigation in the wake of the Wagner Coup and possible collusion between Prigozhin and officers in the Russian army as President Vladimir Putin seeks to reassert his rule. 

On Tuesday, the New York Times, citing western intelligence sources, wrote that Surovikin had direct knowledge of Prigozhin’s plans to march on Moscow and did not act. Other analysts have claimed it is unlikely that the Putin "loyalist" Surovikin would have supported a full on coup.

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But the actual objectives of Priogzhin in launching his uprising are still unknown.

It has even been reported that one goal of the Wagner mutiny may have not have originally been about overthrowing Putin, but rather to abduct Surovikin’s replacement Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu - both of whom Prigozhin blames for Russia's disastrous war effort in Ukraine - to force the reappointment of Surovikin in some capacity. 

US officials briefed on the intelligence have said that they can’t confirm whether Surovikin knew about the coup. But the reports of Surovikin’s foreknowledge could explain the apathy of the Russian military during Wagner’s taking of Rostov and their march towards Moscow.

On the other hand, it has been pointed out that the only forces that Wagner attacked during the coup were those under the command of aerospace chief Surovikin, with the mercenaries shooting down several Russian military aircraft