Russian officials announced on Wednesday that it had demoted the chief spearheading its offensive in Ukraine—a man nicknamed “General Armageddon.”
On Jan. 11, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced he had appointed Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, as overall commander of the country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Gerasimov will have several deputies, the government said in a statement—including Sergei Surovikin, his predecessor.
Surovikin, who held the top position for only three months, has become known as “General Armageddon” and the “Butcher of Syria” thanks to his reputation for using brutal tactics in other conflicts, including Russia’s longstanding operations in war-torn Syria.
One campaign overseen by Surovikin, which targeted hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure in the Syrian city of Idlib, was said to have shown “callous disregard for the lives of roughly 3 million civilians” by Human Rights Watch.
After being appointed to lead the operation in Ukraine in October, Surovikin headed up Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian energy infrastructure—a campaign that has left millions of Ukrainian civilians without power or running water through the winter.
New boss Gerasimov, who has been at the helm of the Russian army since 2012, and Defense Minister Shoigu have faced widespread criticism from Russia’s prominent pro-Kremlin military bloggers, who blame military leadership for a series of setbacks on the battlefield and have accused them of incompetence for failing to secure a victory in Ukraine.
Among a series of setbacks for Moscow’s forces in recent months was a missile strike that killed at least 89 Russian troops in the eastern Ukrainian city of Makiivka, which came with a rare confirmation of Russian casualties from the Kremlin. In the wake of the strike, Russian officials pointed the finger at their own personnel, claiming their use of banned cell phones had allowed them to be located by Ukrainian forces.
Another setback came in Kherson—a key port city in southern Ukraine that fell to Russian forces shortly after the invasion, giving Moscow control over a coveted land bridge from mainland Ukraine to Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine that was invaded and annexed by Russian forces in 2014.
However, Moscow’s troops were met with staunch resistance from locals in Kherson, and in November—with Russian forces under Surovikin’s leadership—the city was liberated from Russian control by Ukrainian troops, a development seen as a major setback for the Kremlin.
Despite the recent string of successful Ukrainian counter operatives, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the reason for Wednesday’s leadership reshuffle was simply an “expansion of the scale of tasks” involved with the invasion, which Moscow continues to describe as a “special military operation.”
A need for closer cooperation between the various branches of the armed forces, as well as a general push for improvement in troop management, had also triggered the overhaul, officials said.
Russia’s military leadership overhaul was met with ridicule in Ukraine.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday—alongside a doctored image of Surovikin wearing a clown nose —officials at Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications referred to the reshuffle as “senseless juggling.”
“Today from the lair of the invaders came the news that the ‘Syrian butcher’ Surovikin was solemnly demoted, and in his place was appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Gerasimov,” they said, before claiming Surovikin’s “greatest achievements” included losing the battle for Kherson and being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Russian servicemen.
“Whoever Putin and his henchmen appoint, Ukraine will win,” officials added.
Spokespeople for the Russian government were not available for comment on its military leadership changes when contacted by Fortune.
Russia ‘falling short’
In an update on Wednesday, the British Ministry of Defence said Gerasimov’s replacement of Surovikin was a “significant development in Vladimir Putin’s approach to managing the war.”
“The deployment of the Chief of the General Staff as theater commander is an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals,” the U.K defense officials said.
They also said that the move was likely to be met with “extreme displeasure by much of the Russian ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war.”
“In contrast, Surovikin has been widely praised by this community for his championing of a more realistic approach. As a now deputy commander, his authority and influence is almost certainly hugely reduced,” the MoD’s update added.
Rob Lee, an expert in Russian defense policy and senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a tweet on Wednesday that while the shakeup appeared “quite significant,” he did not believe it had been done because Surovikin was viewed as a failure.
It was “certainly possible that this was driven by political reasons” as well as the growing influence of nationalist bloggers on home soil.
“As the unified commander in Ukraine, Surovikin was becoming very powerful and was likely bypassing Shoigu/Gerasimov when talking to Putin. “This [move] reasserts the MoD's position overseeing the war.”
Lee noted that a key Putin ally, the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—who founded private Russian military company Wagner Group—had publicly praised Surovikin while criticizing the senior leadership of the MoD.
“This [reshuffle] may also partially be a response to Wagner's increasingly influential and public role in the war,” Lee speculated.
Meanwhile, Mark Galeotti, an analyst the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank, said on Twitter on Wednesday that the leadership shakeup was certainly a step down for Surovikin.
Is it a demotion for former joint commander Surovikin? Implicitly, yes, of course - even if being framed simply as a response to the increased 'status' of the op. 2/— Mark Galeotti (@MarkGaleotti) January 11, 2023
“What did Surovikin do wrong? Nothing, really,” he said. “Yes, there were all kinds of reversals, including the recent Makiivka strike, but there is a limit to what one new commander can do in three months. But Putin doesn't necessarily understand this (remember: no military experience and a court full of sycophants) nor care.”
Galeotti said he suspected the changes at the top of Russia’s military were less about battlefield strategy and more to do with politics—specifically, demonstrating to the West that Russia is “in this for the long haul.”
“So what does this actually mean?” he said. “Confirmation, if we needed it, that there will be serious offensives coming, and that even Putin recognizes that poor coordination has been an issue.”