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Shuffle of Russian military chiefs preceded death of Wagner boss Prigozhin

A portrait of late head of Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is displayed at a makeshift memorial in Moscow on Aug. 27.  (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)
By Francesca Ebel Washington Post

A day before the airplane disaster that killed Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a Prigozhin ally known as “General Armageddon,” was removed as head of Russia’s air force.

Surovikin’s ouster was not the only hint that a consolidation was underway among the commanders of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Three days earlier, the Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin had visited the main headquarters for the war along with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. For months, Gerasimov had rarely been seen in public and, along with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, had been a frequent target of Prigozhin’s scathing public tirades accusing Russia’s regular military leadership of incompetence.

At the headquarters in Rostov-on-Don – the same one that Prigozhin and Wagner fighters seized during a brief, extraordinary rebellion in June – Putin shook Gerasimov’s hand and they walked together past a wall of portraits of decorated officers. With a smile, Putin greeted his “comrade officers” before attending a closed meeting with soldiers.

The message was clear: Shoigu and Gerasimov remain in charge, serving at Putin’s pleasure. Meanwhile, their external critics and internal rivals were being silenced or sidelined.

Some 96 hours after the Rostov visit, Prigozhin, who achieved Russia’s only significant territorial gain so far this year by capturing the city of Bakhmut, was dead, thus eliminating the most prominent pro-war critic of the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine.

The Wagner plane crash remains shrouded in mystery. A Prigozhin confidant who spoke out has raised two theories: that Prigozhin and two top deputies were assassinated by the Russian government, meaning that no one from Putin on down could be trusted; or that their deaths were orchestrated by outside actors, in which case the Russian security services failed to protect them.

In any case, analysts say, the Wagner deaths and the dismissals and disappearances of regular Russian military commanders highlight how Putin lacks trust in his military leadership. Fearing betrayal, the Russian leader has prioritized loyalty over competence, and he has tolerated infighting that has degraded his war machine.

“The army has degenerated organizationally, intellectually and technically,” said Pavel Luzin, an expert on the Russian military and a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation who is based in the United States.

Missing in action

Surovikin, who was widely credited with pulling overextended Russian forces back from an untenable position in Kherson and also with strengthening the formidable defenses that have so far held back Ukraine’s counteroffensive, had disappeared from view after the Wagner rebellion in June, when he was apparently held for questioning.

Last week he surfaced in a photograph, geolocated to Moscow, wearing civilian clothes and sunglasses. Russian officials have said he is “resting” and has retained his rank, but he seems unlikely to reclaim a top post anytime soon.

In July, a few weeks after the Wagner mutiny, Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, who led one of Russia’s elite forces in Ukraine, was abruptly dismissed after criticizing leaders of the Defense Ministry. In an audio message, leaked after Popov’s dismissal, he accused his superiors of “treacherously and vilely decapitating the army at the most difficult and tense moment.”

Popov, who was broadly admired for his competence, was reassigned to Syria, drawing ire from many pro-war Russian bloggers. One of them, Andrei Zhivov, wrote that Popov’s reassignment would “significantly reduce the morale and combat effectiveness.”

Another commander, former deputy defense minister Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, who was dismissed in April and then joined Wagner, has not been seen since the mutiny.

At its most dramatic, the internal fight has led regular Russian units and Wagner fighters to turn their guns on each other. Lt. Col. Roman Venevitin, who was commander of Russia’s 72d Brigade, published a video accusing the mercenaries of kidnapping him and some of his soldiers. Wager had released a video of Venevitin being interrogated while in custody, in which he said he had ordered his soldiers to shoot at Wagner fighters. During the rebellion, Wagner fighters shot down several Russian military aircraft.

The possibility that the Kremlin or the Defense Ministry ordered an assassination of Prigozhin – a longtime ally of the president who was nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of the government catering contracts that made him rich – points to a deeper paranoia that has caused tumult in the military’s top ranks since the start of the invasion.

Leonid Volkov, the longtime top political aide to jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said that Putin has no choice but to keep Shoigu in charge because a more talented defense minister would pose a threat to the president – especially if he succeeded in turning the war in Russia’s favor. A triumphant, celebrity military chief would pose a similar threat, potentially galvanizing pro-war nationalists who have rallied around the symbol Z painted on Russia’s tanks, Volkov said.

“Shoigu is irreplaceable, and he’s irreplaceable because he’s very bad,” Volkov wrote on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. “Changing Shoigu or someone even worse doesn’t make sense for Putin (there are enough problems without that). And changing him for someone better and who will succeed is too dangerous.”

Given the frustration and disappointment in how the war is going, Volkov added, “anyone who replaces Shoigu will automatically receive an unlimited advance of hope and trust rating. And if he is better than Shoigu and achieves something, he will be more popular than Putin, consolidating the whole Z public.”

Repeated reshuffles

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at least 12 high-ranking military commanders have been removed from their positions. While it appears that some were removed for critical mistakes, others were fired after they criticized Russia’s high command or complained about conditions on the front.

On July 17, Popov was transferred to Syria, following in the footsteps of other disgraced generals, such as Col. Gen. Andrei Serdyukov, Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko and Lt. Gen. Sergei Kisel – all, according to media reports, transferred as punishment for early failures in the war.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant, said the removal of Popov showed continuing fissures in the army and a widespread dissatisfaction among top brass. “Of course this undermines morale,” Markov wrote on the Telegram messaging platform.

In October 2022, Surovikin, who had led Russia’s southern grouping of forces, was promoted to be the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine – a move that Prigozhin publicly applauded.

Under Surovikin’s watch, Russian troops withdrew from the city of Kherson on the west side of the Dnieper River, where they had occupied the regional capital but held a tenuous position.

After that retreat, Surovikin oversaw a strengthening of Russia’s defenses in Ukraine. Troops constructed three defensive belts with minefields and a web of trenches that have slowed Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The defense line was dubbed the “Surovikin line” by analysts, and even Ukrainian officials have acknowledged its effectiveness.

But in January, Surovikin was nonetheless demoted and replaced by Gerasimov.

Following Prigozhin’s mutiny, Surovikin was brought in for questioning by Russia’s intelligence services. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told The Washington Post that Surovikin’s dismissal indicated a “severe crisis” in Russia’s strategic command.

“The disappearance of Surovikin directly indicates a temporary tactical victory for … Shoigu, as well as the continued presence of Putin’s great fear,” Podolyak said. “The Russian president categorically does not trust any of the real generals.”

Luzin, the analyst, said Russia’s system of rewarding military figures for loyalty over skill had long preceded the invasion.

“Many of them were ‘favorites,’ but that doesn’t mean they were competent,” Luzin said. “Any Russian general in the last 20 years is primarily a loyal bureaucrat, and they played by the rules of power. But don’t confuse that with competence.”

Prigozhin’s mistake

No one drew more attention to the failures of the regular military than Prigozhin, who lambasted Shoigu and Gerasimov while touting his own Wagner fighters.

Prigozhin called Shoigu and Gerasimov “traitors” and blamed them for excess casualties.

Shoigu and Gerasimov sought to rein Prigozhin in and won Putin’s backing for a plan that would have brought all of Wagner under the Defense Ministry’s control. Prigozhin refused, and the standoff ultimately led him to launch the rebellion against them, which he called off only after Putin gave a speech making clear that he was sticking by the regular military command.

Analysts said Wagner’s success in seizing Bakhmut was not enough to win Putin’s support.

“We’ve seen time and again that the attributes that get you rewarded – if you’re a high-ranking officer or even a low-ranking one – are obedience, even to unworkable orders,” said Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corp.

Mark Galeotti, a British analyst of Russia’s security services, blamed Gerasimov, who he said was maneuvering to eliminate those he viewed as threats or potential successors.

“I get the sense that actually Gerasimov is taking advantage of this current new mood of sort of paranoia in the system to essentially move aside people who otherwise are threats to his position,” Galeotti said. “It is clear that commanders who are more willing to stand up for their troops, or pose more of sort of a potential threat, are definitely not doing well.”

Shoigu and Gerasimov may have won the battle with Prigozhin in part because Putin was persuaded that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was failing and that Russia was still on track for overall victory. Analysts say that triumph is far from assured.

The infighting among the Russian leadership in itself will not lead to a defeat, analysts said.

“It’s more that there is an accretional array of different dysfunctions, all of which slowly tracks down,” Galeotti said. “If you cannot raise with your superior [that] there are some problems, it reduces the capacity of the military to learn.”

One such issue that appears to be going unaddressed is the deteriorating morale among Russian forces on the front.

“Offering a difference of opinion will get you in trouble,” Massicot said. “The effect of this is that we’ll see more distortions coming up the chain of command to where those sitting in Moscow don’t really have an appreciation for where the weak spots are on their front line.”