26 June 2022
by Aleksandr Cherkasov, member of the board of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre
Source: Novaya gazeta
General Surovikin commands the “South” group in Ukraine. In August 1991, he was arrested for the death of White House defenders in Moscow
In the latest report from Russian Defence Ministry representative Konashenkov, a few essential truths were spelled out: “The formations and military units of the ‘Centre’ forces under the command of Colonel-General A.P. Lapin, having broken through the Ukrainian forces’ well-prepared defence, routed their opponent and, having developed their offensive, blocked the city of Lysychansk from the south.” Previously the names of the generals and groupings had been omitted.
In connection with this, many recalled Vysotsky’s lines—“Marching through Ukraine/Soldiers from the Centre Group”—and were stunned yet again at the “similarity to the point of confusion” with the events of 80 years ago. It’s symbolic, but there’s no arguing.
Paradoxically, this similarity distracted attention from another paragraph in the General Staff’s report: “Simultaneously, the Southern forces under the command of Army General S.V. Surovikin completed the rout of the VSU [Ukrainian Armed Forces] forces surrounded in the ‘Mountain Cauldron.’”
This paragraph is no less—and maybe even somewhat more—symbolic.
The point is not that for more than four years—since 31 October 2017—General Surovikin has held the post of Commander of Russia’s Military-Space Forces. One has to wonder where land-based operations come in here. But this is no joke. Sergei Vladimirovich is the first “nonflying” commander in the history of our country’s military aviation. Before this, his entire career had been on dry land, on Earth.
Nor is it that, since March 2017, General Surovikin commanded Russian forces in Syria, where he supposedly achieved a turnabout in military actions, after which, they say, the withdrawal of Russian forces began. But let’s leave to independent experts just how many such “turnabouts” and “withdrawals” there actually were.
General Surovikin’s career ascent began in autumn of 2008, after the war in North Ossetia and Georgia, when he was appointed head of the General Staff’s Main Operations Administration. Evidently, his role in the “Serdyukov” reform of the Russian army was quite substantial. In particular, he was responsible for creating the military police. From 2012 to 2017, Surovikin was chief of staff and then commander of the Eastern Military District.
Before that, from 1995 to 2008, he went from battalion commander in Tajikistan to commander of the 20th Army in Central Russia. Let us single out one of the steps on this path: in the years 2004-2005, Surovikin commanded the 42nd Motorized Infantry Division, the basic army formation, permanently stationed in Chechnya.
An ordinary military career, whether for the 19th or the 21st century: the Caucasus and Turkestan.
Not that there’s anything unusual in the pair of criminal cases from the early 1990s against the future general, especially since in one (the death of civilians) the charges against Surovikin were dropped, while in the other (arms dealing) the court’s decision was eventually rescinded due to rehabilitating circumstances.
In criminal cases of the last 30 years connected with Russian military men, there have been quite a few major turnabouts.
Let us recall the 1994 murder of Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Dmitri Kholodov, in which all the suspects and defendants, from Defence Minister General Pavel Grachev to the officers of the 245th Regiment of VDV [Air Force] Special Intelligence, were eventually acquitted.
Or another case, which got as far as Strasbourg, about the February 2000 disappearance in Alkhan-Kal of Khadzhimurad Yandiev, a fighter wounded and taken captive. General Aleksandr Baranov, commander of the Russian forces, was recorded by a CNN camera ordering he be shot. Subsequently, the Russian court decided that Baranov’s words did not constitute an order. And the decision of the other, Strasbourg, court changed nothing. Moreover, Aleksandr Ivanovich rose to command the North Caucasus Military District.
Why go stirring up these old, long closed, and long forgotten cases? Because Captain Surovikin figured in the very first of these cases.
On the night of 20-21 August 1991, the 1st Motorized Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Guards Motor Infantry, Taman Division, by order of the GKChP [State Committee on the State of Emergency], was sent to take up posts on the Ring Road. The duties of battalion commander were carried out by Sergei Surovikin. According to the official version, in the tunnel under the New Arbat, “the column was stopped by a crowd, and barricades had been set up on the road. Surovikin warned the crowd… demanded they let the column through, and fired two warning shots in the air from his service weapon. After that, he and some of the column broke through the barricades and left the scene of conflict, while in the crowd’s continuing attacks on the remaining military vehicles, three young men perished.” Dmitry Komar perished under the wheels of an infantry tank, and Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov were shot.
Surovikin was arrested and spent more than six months in custody. Eventually the charges were dropped. After all, the captain was carrying out an order. Moreover, Boris Yeltsin seemingly directly said, “…and release Major Surovikin immediately,” thereby making it clear that he was promoting him in rank for exemplary execution of his military duty.”
That very first criminal case was closed. And in February 1994, the “GKChP case” and the case of Moscow’s autumn 1993 “Little Civil War” ended with an amnesty.
Returning to reports from the fronts of Eastern Ukraine, let us note that although there are plenty of similarities with the Second World War (in these same areas, between Izyum and Barvenkovo, 80 years ago, in May 1942, the Red Army’s catastrophic rout and retreat began), the similarity to events of 30 years ago are no less substantive.
Sergei Surovikin was given the rank of army general on 16 August 2021, exactly on the anniversary of the August putsch, which was hardly a coincidence.
Of course, you could consider all the armed conflicts of the post-Soviet decades a chain of such coincidences. Moreover, Lev Tolstoy himself, with his “Die erste Kolonne marschiert, die zweite Kolonne marschiert” from school, taught that all plans go up in flames at the first attempt to implement them. It’s a very convenient position, making it possible to avoid looking for the meaning and essence of events.
It would be much more productive to examine events, conflicts, and wars united by shared actors as a chain. A chain of mistakes, a chain of crimes, a chain of impunity. An impunity that gives birth to new wars, mistakes, and crimes.
The same units and the same officers are going from war to war. Their experience yesterday determines today’s and tomorrow’s orders. Comparing judicial decisions (or the inaction of the investigation and court), they understand full well the limits of what is allowed—or the absence of such limits.
But this understanding demands action: the chain of impunity needs to be broken. Over the previous decades, we Russian human rights activists, not excluding Memorial, have not been able to do this. We are reminded of this yet again by the General Staff’s reports on the new successes of General Sergei Surovikin, while “formations and military units of Centre forces march across the Ukrainian land.”
Translated by Marian Schwartz