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Russia appoints new overall commander for its military in Ukraine

Announcement follows growing criticism of the military's recent battlefield failures.
Commander of Russia's aerospace forces Sergei Surovikin attends a meeting on military aviation chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on May 15, 2019.
Sergei Surovikin at a meeting on military aviation chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2019.Sergey Guneev / Sputnik via AP file
/ Source: Associated Press

Russia has appointed a single commander to lead all its forces in Ukraine, the country's Defense Ministry said Saturday.

Sergei Surovikin will be the first person to be handed sole charge of the campaign since the invasion was launched in February.

The army general, who is also head of Russia's air force, was placed in charge of Russian troops in southern Ukraine over the summer.

Surovikin has previously led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.

He will now be responsible for reinvigorating a campaign that has suffered heavy losses and lost thousands of square miles of territory in recent weeks.

The string of battlefield setbacks has led to open criticism of Moscow’s military leadership, heightening the sense of domestic discontent and posing a rare challenge to the Kremlin.

Although no one has yet dared to point the finger at Putin himself, a growing chorus of voices across state media has expressed dismay at the war’s lack of progress in recent days, while nationalist figures have raised the pressure since the breakthroughs by Kyiv’s forces in the south and east. 

Surovikin's appointment follows the reported sacking this week of the commanders of two of Russia’s five military regions. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a strong proponent of the war, openly accused Russia’s top military brass of covering up for a general who he said allowed Kyiv to retake a key city in eastern Ukraine last week.

Kerch Bridge in Crimea Explosion Linking Russia to Annexed Region.
Black smoke billows from a fire on the Kerch Strait Bridge that links Crimea to Russia on Saturday.AFP - Getty Images

His appointment came after a huge explosion on a strategically important bridge linking Russia and the Crimea Peninsula brought down sections of road and caused fuel tanker wagons to catch fire on a train.

A day after President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 70th birthday, the Kerch Strait Bridge, which has been a symbol of his illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was partially destroyed by the blast, which Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement was caused by a truck being “blown up.”

This “resulted in the ignition of seven fuel tanks of a train heading towards the Crimean Peninsula,” the statement said, adding that two sections of road bridge had partially collapsed.

In a later statement, the committee said three people had been killed in the blast. It added that the bodies of a man and a woman had been found in the water. No mention was made about the third victim.

Without directly claiming responsibility for the explosion, Ukrainian officials have been posting gleeful messages to social media about the blast.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Saturday that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, had lost its last remaining external power source as a result of renewed shelling and is now relying on emergency diesel generators.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the plant’s link to a 750-kilovolt line was cut at around 1 a.m. Saturday. It cited official information from Ukraine as well as reports from IAEA experts at the site, which is held by Russian forces.

All six reactors at the plant have been shut down but still require electricity for cooling and other safety functions. Plant engineers have begun work to repair the damaged power line and the plant’s generators — not all of which are currently being used. Each has sufficient fuel for at least 10 days, the IAEA said.