General Sergei Surovikin, who U.S. officials said knew in advance of the aborted insurgency against Russia’s military leadership, was the commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine from October 2022 to January this year, when he was reassigned.
The 56-year-old officer, dubbed “General Armageddon” by Russian media for his reputation for cruelty, has not been seen in public since early Saturday. Several Russian pro-war blogs reported that authorities were investigating military service members linked to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who led the uprising, but these reports could not be independently confirmed.
Mr. Prigozhin and General Surovkin have known each other at least since Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war, with military analysts saying the general played a prominent role in turning the fighting in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Fighters from Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group were on the ground in Syria at the time, and reports indicate that both Wagner and General Surovikin exploited the civil war for financial gain. A Russian news site reported that a company linked to Wagner received 25 percent of the profits from Syrian oil and gas production in fields seized by mercenaries from Islamic State fighters. The wife of General Surovkin owns a phosphate mining company in Syria, according to A.S investigation By the organization of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Mr. Prigozhin sought a greater role for General Surovkin after it became clear that Russian forces would not be able to achieve their military objectives as quickly as military leaders had planned.
When appointed commander of forces in Ukraine, Prigozhin called General Surovikin “the most capable commander in the Russian army,” according to a statement carried by Russia’s Live 24 news agency at the time.
Although General Surovikin was reappointed in January to command Russia’s air and space forces, he was widely respected for overseeing a relatively orderly Russian withdrawal from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson last fall.
He was replaced in Ukraine by General Valery Gerasimov, who became a regular subject of Mr. Prigozhin’s increasingly rants on Telegram. The move was widely seen as a demotion of General Surovikin, and the Russian Defense Ministry said the reshuffle would help increase the “effectiveness of troop management”.
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a Britain-based research group, said the general retains support among Russian forces in Ukraine, which would have made him an important ally for Mr. Prigozhin. He previously oversaw the Russian Army’s Southern Command, which is based in Rostov-on-Don, the city that Wagner briefly captured during the rebellion.
He said, “I’m sure there were some people in the Southern Military District who were likely loyal to him, and if he had given directions to support Prigozhin or work with Prigozhin, they likely would have helped his troops get in.” Mr. Ramani, author of a recent book on the war in Ukraine.
Besides commanding Russian forces in Syria, General Surovkin was present in Chechnya in the early 2000s, according to state media and his biography on the Russian Defense Ministry website. Human Rights Watch said in 2020 that he was among the military commanders who may bear “command responsibility” for human rights abuses in Syria.
He participated in a failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and spent at least six months in prison after soldiers under his command. Three demonstrators were killed, but were eventually released without trial, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The group said he was convicted in 1995 of arms dealing and given a suspended prison sentence, but the conviction was later overturned.
It was placed on the European Union’s sanctions list on February 23, 2022, one day before Russia invaded Ukraine.