Putin's Priority: Knowing Which Russian Generals He Can Trust
A rebel chief in exile, a top General arrested, a President waving at the crowd. While Putin is putting on a show in public, a large- scale investigation is cleaning house among the Russian military, one week after the Wagner group's attempted coup.
Vladimir Putin is doing his best to show that all is well inside his kingdom. After being famously cautious about contact since COVID, he threw himself into a walkabout in southern Russia on Wednesday, which included hugging and kissing with local residents. State television described the scene as “worthy of a rock star.”
On Thursday, Putin was again in front of the cameras at a technology fair. In other words: move along, nothing to see here.
But beneath the surface of supposed peace and tranquility, there is nothing normal to speak of. The Financial Times is reporting that General Sergey Surovikin, one of Russia’s top military officers, has since been arrested. Surovikin had been the main military contact for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner boss behind last Saturday’s attempted coup.
Surovikin’s daughter refuted the report, declaring that her father was free; but the fact is he hasn’t appeared since events of last weekend, and U.S. sources have claimed that he had been informed of Prigozhin’s plan in advance. Either way, the reports are a clear sign that the Wagner case is not done making waves.
A formidable leader
General Surovikin has quite the pedigree: he led Russian operations in Syria, where Moscow's intervention saved the tottering regime of Bachar al-Assad at the cost of a merciless war, including against civilians. He has earned a reputation as a formidable military leader.
His appointment at the head of Ukrainian operations last fall was hailed by Moscow’s propagandists as a sign that things were finally about to get serious. His results were no better, and Surovikin was quickly replaced by the Chief of Staff himself, General Valery Gerasimov. Back in Moscow, he remained the interlocutor for Wagner’s boss, who went to war with the very top of the Russian military brass: Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Whatever his ultimate fate, the current “disappearance” of General Surovikin shows that, as might be expected, the Kremlin has launched a major investigation into the extent of Prigozhin’s support and ramifications within the army. Putin's future security is at stake.
Even while Putin plays the rock star in public, his closed-door investigation is no doubt what's really on his mind.
Prigozhin digs in
Ukrainians don’t expect to see the immediate effects of the events in Moscow on the front line defended by Russian troops. However, depending on the scale of the upcoming inquisition, and the purge that could follow, there could be real consequences.
A part of the investigation focuses on Prigozhin’s contacts in the army, who would have led him to believe that his column, launched in the direction of Moscow, could count on rallying support along the road. There was none, and Wagner’s chief pulled the plug on his men in the face of a battle they couldn’t win.
Prigozhin is exiled in Belarus and has refused to sign the contract demanded by the army
Today, Prigozhin is exiled in Belarus, and has refused to sign the contract demanded by the army, effectively excluding Wagner from the Ukrainian front. His future remains a mystery, but what matters most right now is the scale of the shock wave in Moscow.
Will Surovikin be taken down? Will Prigozhin keep digging in his heels? It all may just be the beginning, and the outcome is still wide open. Even while Putin plays the rock star in public, his closed-door investigation is no doubt what's really on his mind.
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