Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who U.S. officials have said knew beforehand about the aborted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, was the commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine from October 2022 to this January, when he was reassigned.
The 56-year-old officer, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media because of his reputation for ruthlessness, has not been seen publicly since early Saturday. Several pro-war Russian blogs reported that the authorities were investigating military service members with ties to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who led the uprising, but those reports could not be independently confirmed.
Mr. Prigozhin and General Surovikin have known each other at least since Russia’s intervention in Syria’s war, where military analysts say the general played a prominent role in turning the fighting in favor of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Fighters from Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group were on the ground in Syria at the time, and reports indicate that both Wagner and General Surovikin used the civil war for financial gain. A Wagner-linked company secured a 25 percent share of profits from Syrian oil and gas production at fields the mercenaries captured from Islamic State militants, a Russian news site reported. General Surovikin’s wife owns a phosphate mining business in Syria, according to an investigation by the organization of jailed opposition activist Aleksei Navalny.
Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and Mr. Prigozhin sought a larger role for General Surovikin after it became clear that Russian forces would not be able to achieve their military goals as quickly as military leaders had planned.
When he was appointed commander of forces in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin called General Surovikin “the most competent commander in the Russian Army,” according to a statement quoted by Russia’s Live 24 news agency at the time.
Although General Surovikin was reassigned in January to command Russia’s air and space forces, he was widely respected for overseeing a relatively orderly Russian retreat from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson last fall.
He was replaced in Ukraine by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who became a regular subject of Mr. Prigozhin’s increasingly vituperative rants on Telegram. The move was widely seen as a demotion for General Surovikin, and the Russian Defense Ministry said the shake-up would help increase “the effectiveness of troop management.”
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British-based research group, said that the general retains support among Russian troops in Ukraine, which would have made him a valuable ally to Mr. Prigozhin. He previously oversaw the Russian military’s southern command, which is headquartered in Rostov-on-Don, the city Wagner briefly seized during the mutiny.
“I’m sure that there were some people in the southern military district who would have likely been loyal to him, and if he gave directions to to back Prigozhin or work with Prigozhin, they probably would have helped his forces come in,” said Mr. Ramani, the author of a recent book about the war in Ukraine.
Besides leading Russian forces in Syria, General Surovikin was in Chechnya in the early 2000s, according to state news media and his biography on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website. Human Rights Watch said in 2020 that he was among military leaders who might bear “command responsibility” for human rights violations 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 killed three protesters, but was eventually released without trial, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington. In 1995, the group said, he was convicted of arms trading and received a suspended sentence, but the conviction was later overturned.
He was placed on a European Union sanctions list on Feb. 23, 2022, a day before Russia invaded Ukraine.