A senior Russian general had advance knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to rebel against the Russian military leadership, according to US officials briefed by US intelligence on the matter, which has raised questions about what support the mercenary leader has within the ranks. taller.
Officials said they were trying to find out whether General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s former top commander in Ukraine, helped plan Prigozhin’s actions last weekend, which posed the most dramatic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin in his 23 years in power.
General Surovikin is a respected military leader who helped bolster defenses along the battle lines after last year’s Ukrainian counter-offensive, analysts say. He was replaced as commander-in-chief in January, but has retained influence in managing wartime operations and remains popular with troops.
American officials also said there were signs that other Russian generals may have supported Prigozhin’s attempt to forcibly change the defense ministry’s leadership. Current and former US officials have said that Prigozhin would not have launched his uprising if he did not believe that others in positions of power would come to his aid.
Were General Surovikin involved in last weekend’s events, it would be the latest sign of the infighting that has characterized Russia’s military leadership since the start of Putin’s war in Ukraine and could signal a wider rift between Prigozhin’s supporters and by Mr. Putin’s two top military advisers: Sergei K. Shoigu, defense minister, and General Valery V. Gerasimov, chief of staff.
Mr Putin must now decide, officials say, whether he believes General Surovikin has helped Mr Prigozhin and how he should respond.
Russia’s domestic intelligence agency said on Tuesday it was dropping criminal charges of « armed mutiny » against Mr Prigozhin and members of his force. But if Mr Putin finds evidence that General Surovikin has been helping Mr Prigozhin more directly, he will have no choice but to remove him from his command, officials and analysts say.
Some former officials say Mr Putin could decide to keep General Surovikin, if he concludes he has some knowledge of what Mr Prigozhin had planned but it didn’t help him. For now, analysts say, Putin seems intent on attributing the mutiny exclusively to Prigozhin.
« Putin is reluctant to change people, » said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. « But if the secret services put files on Putin’s desk and if some files involve Surovikin, that could change. »
Senior US officials suggest an alliance between General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin could explain why Mr. Prigozhin is still alive, despite the seizure of a major Russian military hub and the order for an armed march on Moscow.
US officials and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. They stressed that much of what the United States and its allies know is preliminary. US officials have avoided discussing the rebellion publicly, for fear of fueling Putin’s narrative that the riots were orchestrated by the West.
However, US officials have an interest in divulging information that undermines the position of General Surovikin, who they consider more competent and more ruthless than other members of the command. Removing him would no doubt benefit Ukraine, whose Western-backed troops are pushing a new counter-offensive aimed at trying to recapture territory captured from Moscow.
The Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
General Surovikin spoke out against the rebellion when it became public on Friday, in a video urging Russian troops in Ukraine to hold their ground and not join the uprising.
“I urge you to stop,” General Surovikin said in a message posted on Telegram. « The enemy is just waiting for the domestic political situation to get worse in our country. »
But a former official called that message similar to « a video of a hostage ». General Surovikin’s body language suggested he was uncomfortable denouncing a former ally, one who shared his view of Russia’s military leadership, the former official said.
There were other marks of divided loyalties in the higher ranks. Another Russian general, Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev, made his video appeal, calling any action against the Russian state a « stab in the back of the country and the president. » But hours later, he emerged in another video, chatting with Mr Prigozhin in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where Wagner fighters have seized military facilities.
« Too many strange things have happened that, in my mind, suggest there was a collusion that we still haven’t figured out, » Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, said in a telephone interview.
« Think how easy it was to take Rostov, » McFaul said. “There are armed guards everywhere in Russia and suddenly there is no one around to do anything?”
Independent experts and US and allied officials said Mr. Prigozhin appeared to believe that much of the Russian military would deploy to his side as his convoy moved on Moscow.
Former officials said General Surovikin did not support removing Putin from power, but appeared to agree with Prigozhin that Shoigu and General Gerasimov should be relieved of their duties.
« Surovikin is a decorated general with a complex history, » said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation. « He is said to be respected by the soldiers and considered competent. »
General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin both brushed up on the tactics used in Ukraine by Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov. While the Russian military’s overall performance in the war was widely derided as disappointing, analysts credited General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin for Russia’s few successes.
In General Surovikin’s case, that limited success was the professionally managed withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, where they had been nearly encircled last fall and cut off from supplies. Based on intercepted communications, US officials concluded that a frustrated General Surovikin represented a hardline faction of generals intent on using the toughest tactics against the Ukrainians.
Similarly, Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries had some success in taking the eastern city of Bakhmut after a nine-month effort in which, according to Mr. Prigozhin’s count, some 20,000 Wagner soldiers were killed. US officials and military analysts say tens of thousands of soldiers have died in the fight for Bakhmut, including Wagner soldiers who were ex-convicts with little training before being sent to war. Mr. Prigozhin has often complained that senior Russian defense and army officials were not supplying his troops with enough weapons.
Russia’s entire military campaign in Ukraine was marked by the changing musical chairs of generals. Last fall, when General Surovikin was put in charge of the Russian military effort in Ukraine, he was the second man to get the job, replacing a general who had lasted just a month. General Surovikin did not last long, but fared much better during his weeks at the helm.
However, in January, General Surovikin was demoted and Putin handed over direct command of the war to General Gerasimov, who promised to put Russian forces back on the offensive. General Surovikin’s demotion, military and Russian analysts say, was widely seen as a major blow to Mr Prigozhin.