A reputable Russian general, Sergei Surovikin, is suspected of having prior knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to challenge Russia's military leadership, as per U.S. officials who have been briefed on American intelligence findings. This revelation has cast doubts on the support system within Russia's military upper echelons for the mercenary leader, Prigozhin.
Investigations are underway to determine if General Surovikin, who once commanded Russian forces in Ukraine, played a role in planning Prigozhin's actions. These actions marked the most significant threat to President Vladimir V. Putin’s reign in his 23-year tenure.
General Surovikin has earned respect as a military strategist, contributing significantly to fortifying defense lines in response to Ukraine's counteroffensive last year. Despite his replacement as the top commander in January, Surovikin still holds sway in directing war operations and maintains popularity among the troops.
In addition, there are hints that other top Russian generals may have backed Prigozhin's audacious attempt to forcibly replace the leadership at the Defense Ministry. It's widely believed that Prigozhin would not have dared to instigate this rebellion without a sense of support from powerful allies within the military.
The possible involvement of General Surovikin in these recent events could be indicative of internal discord within Russia's military leadership, a phenomenon that has been prevalent since the onset of Putin's war in Ukraine. This could also hint at a broader rift between supporters of Prigozhin and Putin’s senior military advisors - Sergei K. Shoigu, the defense minister, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff.
President Putin now faces the challenge of determining whether General Surovikin was indeed complicit in supporting Prigozhin and how he should react.
In a surprising turn of events, the Russian domestic intelligence agency recently dropped the charges of "armed mutiny" against Prigozhin and his force. However, if evidence implicates General Surovikin in actively supporting Prigozhin, Putin may be compelled to remove him from his command, as per officials and analysts.
There are differing opinions on what course of action Putin might take. Some believe that Putin may decide to retain General Surovikin if his involvement was limited to being aware of Prigozhin's plans but not aiding him directly. For the moment, it seems that Putin is determined to place the sole responsibility of the mutiny on Prigozhin.
A potential alliance between General Surovikin and Prigozhin could explain why Prigozhin survived, despite his audacious act of seizing a significant Russian military hub and initiating an armed march towards Moscow.
Though the information divulged in this article is based on anonymous sources due to the sensitive nature of the intelligence, it underscores a clear interest from American officials to undermine General Surovikin's standing, who they regard as a more competent and ruthless member of the command. His removal could be advantageous to Ukraine, whose Western-backed troops are spearheading a new counteroffensive to reclaim territory occupied by Moscow.
The Russian Embassy has not responded to requests for comments as of now.
General Surovikin denounced the rebellion publicly last Friday through a video message encouraging Russian troops in Ukraine to hold their ground and refrain from joining the uprising. However, some former officials interpret this as a sign of internal conflict, suggesting that Surovikin was uneasy about criticizing a former ally who shares his views on the Russian military leadership.
Signs of divided loyalties within the top ranks have emerged.
Another senior military figure, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev, released his own video message, condemning any actions against the Russian state as a betrayal. Yet, a few hours later, he was spotted in another video, casually conversing with Prigozhin in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a location where Wagner fighters had successfully taken over military facilities.
According to Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, "There were just too many peculiar events that suggest there might have been collaboration that we have not fully understood yet."
Yevgeny Prigozhin's audacious rebellion against Russia’s military leadership indicates his belief that a substantial part of Russia’s army would join his cause as his forces advanced towards Moscow. Prigozhin, who had cooperated with General Surovikin during Russia’s military intervention in Syria, had praised him as the most skilled commander in the Russian army. General Surovikin may not have supported overthrowing Putin from power, but he seems to have concurred with Prigozhin's assessment that Shoigu and General Gerasimov should be dismissed.
Despite their differences with senior officials, both General Surovikin and Prigozhin have made noteworthy contributions to Russia’s few successful endeavors in the war. General Surovikin was instrumental in the orderly retreat of Russian troops from Kherson when they were nearly encircled last fall and cut off from supplies. Meanwhile, Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries achieved a significant victory in capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut after a nine-month struggle.
In contrast to their successes, Russia's military campaign in Ukraine has been plagued with frequent changes in leadership. Last fall, when General Surovikin was appointed to lead the Russian Army's effort in Ukraine, he was the second person assigned to the role, replacing a general who had lasted barely a month. Despite his brief stint, General Surovikin significantly outperformed his predecessor during his tenure.
In January, however, General Surovikin was demoted, and direct command of the war was handed over to General Gerasimov, who vowed to restore the offensive momentum of Russian forces. This demotion of General Surovikin was seen by many as a blow to Prigozhin and was a clear indication of the ever-changing dynamics of Russia's military command.
As tensions continue to escalate, Russian officials have been left to ponder the perplexing question of the level of support Yevgeny Prigozhin received from the Russian military's high-ranking officials. The ability to mobilize an insurrection against Russia's military leadership raises questions about potential alliances within the hierarchy. Current and former U.S. officials propose that Prigozhin would not have instigated this rebellion unless he was confident that others in positions of power would rally to his cause.
Furthermore, Putin must confront the delicate question of how to respond if he concludes that General Surovikin was complicit in Prigozhin's actions. It's been reported that the Russian domestic intelligence agency has dropped the "armed mutiny" criminal charges against Prigozhin and his faction. However, if Putin finds solid evidence that General Surovikin actively assisted Prigozhin, he would be compelled to remove him from his command, as officials and analysts suggest.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly. Despite Russia's repeated setbacks and leadership turmoil, some Russian forces have managed to eke out gains in a war marked by harsh conditions and determined opposition. As the situation continues to unfold, all eyes will be on Russia's leadership, as they grapple with internal divisions and the broader implications of their actions. With the balance of power continuously shifting, the outcome of this tumultuous period remains uncertain.
This latest development in Russia's ongoing military campaign provides further evidence of the deepening divisions within the Russian military hierarchy. As the dynamics continue to shift, it remains to be seen how these internal conflicts will affect the overall strategic direction of the conflict and what impact they may have on the future of Russia's military leadership.
Date of Publication: June 27, 2023
Updated: June 28, 2023, 8:03 a.m. ET