Home » Ukraine Update: As the ‘ Surovikin Line’ starts to crumble, the general who made it is still missing

Ukraine Update: As the ‘ Surovikin Line’ starts to crumble, the general who made it is still missing

When Russia began digging trenches in an area of Luhansk Oblast more than 30 kilometers behind the current line of engagement, it was easy to ridicule the strategy. And I did. The whole idea that Russia was building defensive positions so far from the action seemed to be an admission that it was going to cede much of the territory it had taken in Ukraine. The components of the works being assembled, like those unsecured “dragon’s teeth,” seemed laughable.

But what I derisively called the “Putin Line” was the beginning of extensive excavations and preparations across the occupied areas of Ukraine that saw Russian trenching machines excavate hundreds of kilometers of anti-tank and anti-personnel trenches. Trucks brought in pre-cast concrete pillboxes as cranes dropped off hundreds of thousands of those previously snicker-worthy dragon’s teeth. As the whole thing started to come together, Russia spread enormous numbers of mines in front of and among the other fortifications, creating minefields measured in kilometers and creating defensive lines that were anything but a joke.

It’s a massive, complex, interlocking system of defense and it’s effectively slowed Ukraine’s counteroffensive more than anyone—even Ukraine—expected. However, it wasn’t Vladimir Putin who designed the defenses. It was the former head of Russia’s operations in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin. Surovikin has been missing in action since June after being sidelined in connection with the Wagner Group rebellion. Every day that his hands are off the controls, his creation becomes less of an obstacle and more of an artifact.

On Nov. 25, 1967, less than four months after the first test flight of America’s massive Saturn V moon rocket, the Soviet Union rolled out their response. Over 105 meters tall and sporting an incredible 30 engines on the first stage that poured out over 45,000 kilonewtons of force, the N1 was more powerful than the U.S. alternative. It was designed to carry two cosmonauts to lunar orbit and deliver a one-person lander to the surface of the moon. Spy shots of the enormous rocket terrified officials at NASA, who were convinced the Soviets were on the fast track to get their lunar lander flying first.

What NASA didn’t realize was that the designer of that rocket, Sergei Korolev, had died a year earlier while undergoing what was supposed to be a routine procedure. (One of his colleagues said it was actually botched surgery for hemorrhoids.) Without Korolev’s leadership, the completion of the N1 was running late. Four attempted test flights, the last one occurring almost three years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, ended with the destruction of the Soviet rocket before it could reach orbit. The N1, and the Soviet efforts to place a cosmonaut on the lunar surface, were over.

The story of Korolev and the N1 reflects a system that remains in place today in Russia: a firmly top-down hierarchy where information is hoarded and knowledge about operations is often limited to a very few. That’s certainly true in the Russian military. Kos and RO37 have both discussed the lack of noncommissioned officers, but even those kicked out of Russian military academies early so they can fill in the gaps at the front lines are unlikely to find that their commanding generals are exactly open about the big strategic picture.

In no sense is Surovikin a good guy. His actions in Chechnya and Syria earned him the nickname “General Armageddon” within the Russian ranks. Syrian civilians knew him as “The Butcher of Syria.” The waves of missiles that have gone into civilian homes and infrastructure across Ukraine since he took control of Russia’s invasion are exactly Surovikin’s style. So is the regular use of artillery to smash civilian neighborhoods and drive out any source of resistance to Russian occupation.

It’s not even certain that Surovikin is anything close to a good general. Killing civilians and causing terror appears to be his speciality. He’s never had a notable victory in the field against something close to a comparable force, and his “victories” in Syria were mostly in the form of causing maximum bloodshed for minimum gains. The death of a number of Russian soldiers under his command in Chechnya, which Surovikin used as the excuse for a bloody rampage, turned out to have been caused by poor discipline and the drunken firing of a grenade launcher by his own men.

His period of command in Ukraine didn’t start until October 2022, when his entry was heralded by an increase in the number of rockets and drones being directed into Ukrainian cities many kilometers away from the fighting. He was handed the top spot soon after Ukraine had taken back Izyum in the hugely successful Kharkiv counteroffensive. He went on to swiftly lose Kherson as Ukrainian commanders decisively out-generalled him to cut off supply routes, squeeze Russian forces, and liberate the only regional capital to come under Russian control with a parade rather than an artillery bombardment.

Two months after the liberation of Kherson, Surovikin was bumped down to deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. In the spring of 2023, Surovikin was repeatedly invoked by the ex-living ex-head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as the only commander that his forces would recognize. Surovikin was also said to have been in communication with the Wagner forces at the time of their June mutiny. Shortly after Prigozhin halted his troops on the road to Moscow, Surovikin disappeared from public view. In July, there were reports in Russian media that he had been “detained.” In August, he was said to be “under a kind of house arrest,” though where that house might be is something of a mystery. It may look something like a lower floor in the Meshchansky District.

While the Butcher of Syria is off enjoying his vacation courtesy of picking the wrong side in the latest Russian civil war, the troops and commanders remaining in Ukraine are left dealing with his creation. As RO37 has been reporting, it seems like the effectiveness of the Surovikin Line is waning. It took 11 weeks of hard fighting for Ukraine to effectively penetrate and overrun the first line of defense in the Surovikin Line. However, progress now seems to be accelerating.

Russian military bloggers are making daily statements about the shortage of materials, the lack of coherent strategy, and the frustration of Russian forces on the ground. There’s nothing particularly new about this. Complaining that leadership sucks is a feature not limited to the not-so-dearly departed Prigozhin. Russians would probably be screaming that they were short of bullets, short of bombs, and that their officers were all idiots even if they were marching forward.

But they’re not marching forward. Right now, in the area around Robotyne and Verbove, the question is only whether to believe the good news or the really good news.


The good news says that Ukrainian forces are advancing on Novoprokopivka and have come into contact with the defensive lines—including a large anti-tank trench—northwest of Verbove. The really optimistic version of the story insists that Ukraine has already broken through defenses between these two locations and a portion of the defensive line is in the rearview. That optimistic view appears to be … too optimistic. But there are reasons to think that it may soon be the case.


What’s clear from OSINT analyst Emil Kastehelmi’s overview is that the Surovikin Line was either never finished or hasn’t been updated to adapt to the advance of Ukrainian forces toward what were obvious weak points.


There are several potential reasons for this. The Surovikin Line may be an N1—something so complex in operation and so personal in design that only the man who had the original vision can hold it together. Or it may have been more a skeleton than a completely fleshed out system; something that was meant to change and develop as Ukraine tried to break through.

Surovikin’s defenses may also have an issue in that they are Surovikin’s defenses. No one else may have a strong incentive to prove the ousted general’s preparations are effective, or to be somehow seen as the protégé of a guy currently suffering from severe defenestraphobia (and yes, that’s the real name for a fear of windows).

If any failure on the Zaporizhzhia front can be blamed on the guy already conveniently chained in the basement of the Lubyanka, Russian officers are going to feel very, very good about keeping it that way.

Was the whole fighting in front of the trenches plan, which certainly has its value as well as cost, what Surovikin intended in the first place? Was the well rested and intact Russian army just now supposed to be sitting south of Verbove, waiting to pick off any Ukrainian survivors who made it through kilometers of minefields, drones, and overlapping arcs of artillery fire? We don’t know. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter. But if the Surovikin Line is now an artifact of a discarded strategy, being only poorly used by people who don’t understand—and don’t want to understand—how to adapt to Ukraine’s advance … that’s cool.


Northern front reports over the last two days indicate a lower level of fighting around Kupyansk at the far north of the line. Russia’s attempt to take that town, or to force Ukraine to move back across the Orkhiv River, may be over for now.

However, Russia has reportedly moved more forces to the area around Svatove with the intention of extending a salient west toward Borova. A similar effort in July resulted in the capture of three small villages, which Russia held for about a week before Ukraine took them back and returned the line to where it had been originally.

Ukraine continues to hold against efforts by Russia to extend the salient out of Kreminna. Russian forces are bragging about the effectiveness of VDV forces recently deployed to the area not in terms of extending the Russian advance, but by claiming they were essential in halting a Ukrainian advance toward Kreminna. Ukraine continues to hold their position in the forests south of the city despite months of Russian attacks in the area.

On the eastern front, drone and satellite images show that Ukraine controls more of Klishchiivka than has been indicated on official maps. It’s likely there is no Russian force either in or near the town. Two attempts by Russia to move armored columns into Klishchiivka have met with disaster as Ukraine uses the high ground west of the town to their advantage.

Ukraine has reportedly advanced into Andriivka, a smaller town south of Klishchiivka along the same highway, taking both Russian positions and Russian forces.

Ukraine appears to have the strategic positions in the area well in hand, but it’s hard to see how they move forward either to take Bakhmut or to strike defensive lines to the east as long as Russia holds onto the hills around Dubovo-Vasylivka to the northwest of Bakhmut. Exactly why Ukraine is holding so many forces in this area is something of a mystery.

On the southern front the big action is, of course, south of Robotyne as Ukraine tests the integrity of all those defensive lines. What happens at Verbove and Novoprokopivka may be a good predictor of just how effective the remaining Russian defensive lines will be now that Ukraine has cracked the outer shell. That big circle of defensive positions around Tokmak may be a lot less concerning should it turn out that minefields behind the front line are much thinner and trenches are much more poorly defended. Here’s hoping.


August 2023