A Russian general who previously led the invasion force in Ukraine has not been seen in public since Saturday, with US intelligence reportedly claiming he had prior knowledge of the uprising led by the Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Gen Sergei Surovikin is the head of the Russian aerospace forces and formerly Moscow’s supreme commander in Ukraine. Prigozhin had welcomed his appointment to that post in 2022, calling him a “legendary figure” and “born to serve his motherland”.
The well-publicised links between Surovikin and Prigozhin have fuelled rumours that Surovikin may be purged or put under investigation for supporting the mutiny. When Prigozhin launched his uprising, Surovikin made an unambiguous statement against it and in support of the Russian government late on Friday.
“We fought together with you, took risks, we won together,” Surovikin said. “We are of the same blood, we are warriors. I urge you to stop. The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to escalate in our country.”
However, the New York Times, citing western intelligence sources, reported on Wednesday that Surovikin had prior knowledge of Prigozhin’s armed mutiny, in which his Wagner mercenaries captured the city of Rostov and moved on Moscow before cutting an amnesty deal.
US officials briefed on the intelligence said they did not know if Surovikin was actively involved in the plot, which culminated in an aborted march on Moscow of several Wagner convoys with heavy weapons. The other failed goal of the mutiny might have been to abduct the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the head of Russia’s armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
The reports of Surovikin’s knowledge of the plot, if confirmed, could help explain a lacklustre military response to the mutiny.
“We know there are divisions about how the war is being fought and I suspect Surovikin shares the contempt for the amateurishness of Shoigu and Gerasimov,” said Sir Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. “It all depends on what you think Prigozhin was trying to achieve. Surovikin might have been keen on change in higher command but he would not want to have been involved in a coup – which I don’t think was Prigozhin’s original intention either.”
Freedman said it was likely that Surovikin was in Rostov at the time of Prigozhin’s mutiny, given that he and Gen Vladimir Alexeyev, who was seen with Prigozhin on Friday, released similar videos calling for unity and support for Putin from the same room that day.
Most analysts in Russia and abroad were sceptical that Surovikin, a loyalist who had taken on command of Russian forces while they were under heavy pressure from a Ukrainian counterattack, would participate in a full-blown mutiny.
Rob Lee, the American military analyst, said Wagner fought troops technically loyal to Surovikin over the weekend.
“Just want to emphasise that Surovikin is the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, and Wagner shot down 7+ aircraft, including several aircraft that weren’t armed,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Strange thing to do if the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces was actively supporting you.”
Prigozhin has called the deaths of the airmen “regrettable”. In remarks from Belarus, where he is in exile, he said his troops were largely peaceful and that “not a single soldier on the ground” had died during their 24-hour mutiny.
British intelligence sources estimate that Wagner’s force deployed in Ukraine amounts to 15,000 and that the force marching on Moscow was a subset of that, estimated at 8,000 in a report in the Daily Telegraph, and “a few thousand” by Freedman – ostensibly a small force to capture a capital city of 13 million people.
However, the vast majority of Russia’s military are deployed fighting in Ukraine, and the capital was defended by reserves from the National Guard, a low-quality territorial defence and policing force whose number has been estimated at 10,000 and whose armaments may have been limited.
Ben Barry, a land warfare analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he “didn’t see any tanks in Moscow in the television footage on Saturday”, whereas the videos of the Wagner convoy showed a handful of tanks mounted on loading vehicles headed from Rostov towards the capital.
Roadblocks were being dug by Russian police using civilian excavators using military vehicles, he added, while in the one battle that was fought Wagner forces used Pantsir or Strela-10 surface-to-air weapons to knock out six Russian military helicopters and an Il-22 command-and-control aircraft.
Wagner’s small numbers meant it was unlikely to have taken the capital or, if it had entered, to have held it. But Barry said a coup can be decided without resort to combat: “At some point in a coup, there comes a decisive point where one side or the other has to use force against the other – and if government forces do not fight then a coup will succeed.”
The US president, Joe Biden, said on Wednesday it was hard to say whether Putin had been weakened by the mutiny. Despite showing disunity in the ranks, he said ultimately top generals, including Surovikin, offered their support to the Kremlin.
Tatiana Stanovaya, the CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik, said: “While Surovikin might have been sympathetic or privy to the plan, he sided with the state when necessary.
“While a sharp conflict persisted between Wagner and Shoigu/Gerasimov, Surovikin interacted with Prigozhin, had at least a working relationship, and even acted as a mediator (in early May he was involved in resolving problems with the supply of ammunition),” she wrote. “This relationship was likely approved by Putin, suggesting this divide was not a rebellion.”
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, did deny the New York Times report on Wednesday. However, he said: “There will be a lot of speculation, conjecture and so on of various kinds around these events. I believe this is one such example.”
Consequences are expected after the aborted mutiny. Still-unconfirmed reports say that some fighter pilots refused to bomb the Wagner convoy as it approached Moscow and that border troops allowed the convoy to pass unmolested.
Rybar, a popular Russian military blog written by the former military translator Mikhail Zvinchuk, wrote that the mutiny could lead to “large-scale purges in the ranks of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and a crash test of the ministry for loyalty. Investigators and representatives of the Federal Security Service have been working for many days both on the leadership of the military administration bodies and on the commanders of the units.”
No criminal cases have publicly been opened.