Purges Underway In Russian Security Apparatus After Prigozhin’s Mutiny

Reports say Gen. Sergei Surovikin, head of the Russian Air Force and erstwhile Prigozhin ally, was arrested for his part in the mutiny.

byHoward Altman|
Prigozhin Purge
Lev Borodin / TASS


Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abruptly halted mutiny attempt continues to roil Moscow and shake President Vladimir Putin’s decades-long hold on power. Meanwhile, as a result of his putative exile to Belarus, its neighbor Poland is increasing its troop presence and beefing up fortifications out of concern for any trouble Prigozhin might cause. You can read more about what set this all off in our coverage here.

Both The Wall Street Journal and New York Times on Wednesday came out with stories raising issues about who knew what about Prigozhin’s plans before they were launched. In reaction to the failed putsch, purges are taking place in Russia's military while claims have arisen about the arrest of top Russian general Sergei Surovikin for his role in the mutiny, Russian media and Russia’s military-connected Telegram channels claim.

Prigozhin originally planned to capture two top Russian generals as part of his mutiny attempt, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. But that was apparently foiled when the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) found out so Prigozhin decided to move up his timeline, the Journal reported, citing “Western intelligence officials.”

“Prigozhin originally intended to capture Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, during a visit to a southern region that borders Ukraine that the two were planning,” the newspaper reported. But the FSB "found out about the plan two days before it was to be executed," Western officials told the newspaper.

Prigozhin had long railed against the two top military leaders, who he says have been most responsible for the conduct of the full-on invasion, repeatedly calling for their ouster. The day before launching his mutiny, he said Russia was losing the war and accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of "genocide" against their own people "for the murder of tens of thousands of Russian citizens and the transfer of Russian territories to the enemy."

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov (R) were targets of an attempted captured by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. (Photo by GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to the FSB discovery, Russia's National Guard was also aware of what was happening, at least according to its commander, Gen. Viktor Zolotov.

“Specific leaks about preparations for a rebellion that would begin between June 22-25 were leaked from Prigozhin’s camp,” Zolotov told state media on Tuesday, according to the Journal.

Western officials independently learned about Prigozhin's plan "by analyzing electronic communications intercepts and satellite imagery," the Journal wrote, citing a person familiar with the findings. "Western officials said they believe the original plot had a good chance of success but failed after the conspiracy was leaked, forcing Prigozhin to improvise an alternative plan."

Prigozhin was apparently planning on the help of Russian armed forces, who would turn on their leadership, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

The Wagner leader’s aborted mutiny was being plotted with the advance knowledge of a senior Russian general, The New York Times reported Wednesday, raising questions about how much support for Prigozhin’s attempt existed within the top levels of Russia’s military.

“U.S. officials briefed on American intelligence on the matter” are now trying to determine if “Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the former top Russian commander in Ukraine, helped plan Mr. Prigozhin’s actions last weekend,” The New York Times wrote. That march “posed the most dramatic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin in his 23 years in power.”

Beyond Surovikin, The New York Times reported that American officials said there are signs ”that other Russian generals may also have supported Mr. Prigozhin’s attempt to change the leadership of the Defense Ministry by force. Current and former U.S. officials said Mr. Prigozhin would not have launched his uprising unless he believed that others in positions of power would come to his aid.”

While Surovikin spoke out against the rebellion as it became public on Friday, the Times reported that "one former official called that message akin to 'a hostage video.' General Surovikin’s body language suggested he was uncomfortable denouncing a former ally, one who shared his view of the Russian military leadership, the former official said."

As the head of an air force that suffered the loss of at least seven aircraft as a result of attacks by Prigozhin, it was curious to say the least that Surovikin did not have a stronger response to the mutiny.

There were other signs of divided loyalties in the top ranks, according to the Times.

"Another Russian general — Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev — made his own video appeal, calling any actions against the Russian state a 'stab in the back of the country and president.' But hours later, he surfaced in another video, chatting with Mr. Prigozhin in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where Wagner fighters seized military facilities."

You can see a video of that conversation below.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday again addressed the fallout from the Prigozhin mutiny attempt, as well as the statements made by Lukashenko yesterday how he interceded to stop it.

The official Russian TASS news agency highlighted his statements on its Telegram channel:

  • The army and the people were with Putin at the time of the attempted armed rebellion;
  • Allegations that Surovikin allegedly could have known about the upcoming rebellion are speculation and gossip;
  • The Kremlin does not yet have a position on the legislative regulation of the creation of PMCs, there is a discussion;
  • The Kremlin reacted "absolutely normally" to Lukashenko's frank story about his role in stopping the rebellion of PMC "Wagner";
  • The state had nothing to do with the business of Wagner PMC in Africa; (this is laughable considering Putin himself said the Russian government wholly financed and armed Wagner just a couple days before)
  • The Russian Federation will continue military cooperation with the Central African Republic, military advisers will continue their activities in the required number;
  • It is not known about plans to reward Lukashenko for helping to stop the rebellion in the Russian Federation.

Putin, his image of strength wounded, has been on something of public relations blitz, with constant speeches and even sudden appearances in public following Prigozhin's march.

Fallout At The Russian MoD

The most glaring example of fallout from all this is that Surovikin has been arrested, according to The Moscow Times, citing “two sources close to the apparatus of the Ministry of Defense, which has yet to confirm the report. 

“Apparently he [Surovikin] chose the side [of Prigozhin during the rebellion] and they grabbed him by the balls,” the Moscow Times said one of the sources told it. “When asked where the general is now, he replied: ‘We don’t even comment on this information through internal channels.’” 

Rumors about the arrest of Surovikin were previously published by military blogger Vladimir Romanov, the Moscow Times noted. According to him, the general was arrested on June 25, the day after the rebellion. On his Telegram channel, Romanov said Surovikin is in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center.

Surovikin, a Prigozhin confidant at least before the mutiny attempt, is a controversial general in his own right. Dubbed “General Armageddon" for his brutal bombardment tactics in Syria that have played out in Ukraine, he was criticized as the man in charge of Russia’s retreat across the Dnipro River last fall. But he is also credited for helping fortify the defenses that Ukraine is now finding so difficult to defeat in its ongoing, slowly moving counteroffensive. He is also touted for engineering the Iranian-supplied drone strikes across Ukraine as well as for creating the so-called “Bakhmut meat grinder” seen in Russian circles as tying up Ukrainian forces ahead of their counteroffensive

“The armed rebellion of Wagner PMC became a pretext for large-scale purges in the ranks of the RF Armed Forces and a crash test of the ministry for loyalty,” the Kremlin-connected Rybar Telegram channel wrote late Tuesday, before either the Times or Journal published their pieces. “For several days now, investigators and representatives of the FSB have been working both on the leadership of military command and control bodies and on unit commanders.”

The investigators are looking at the “indecisiveness” that led to Prigozhin getting as far as he did, Rybar wrote. Despite the aforementioned reported disclosure of his intentions, Prigozhin was able to capture Rostov-on-Don and reportedly send a column of his troops within 200 kilometers of Moscow.

Support for Prigozhin “has become a litmus test against which the [Russian] Armed Forces are scourged,” Rybar wrote. “Surovikin has not been seen since Saturday - it is not known for certain where General Armageddon is located, there is a version that he is under interrogation.”

Regardless of Surovikin's status, "the actual leadership of the course of the special military operation is carried out by the commander of the Airborne Forces, Mikhail Teplinskiy,” Rybar wrote. “Valery Gerasimov formally retains the post of chief of the General Staff, but has nothing to do with resolving issues” of the ongoing Russian full-on invasion.

Prigozhin’s actions have had far-reaching consequences across the Russian military beyond just Surovikin.

Pilots who refused to strike Wagner convoys and border guards who did not open fire on his columns are also facing prosecution, Rybar and other Russian Telegram channels, like Two Majors, noted.

On the other hand, it seems striking that those who actually took part in the mutiny were offered amnesty by Moscow.

But the fallout from Prigozhin's march also reached far beyond the Kremlin and MoD. Some oligarchs boarded jets and fled while many who remained in Moscow feared retributions, Reuters reported Wednesday.

"Everyone shat themselves badly," said "one source with knowledge of the thinking at the top levels of the Russian business and political elites, which often overlap," according to Reuters.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity due to the danger of speaking publicly in contemporary Russia.

"Anyone with anything to lose was extremely tense."

Prigozhin Still A Player

As for Prigozhin himself, Rybar and Two Majors both insist that he and his troops are in Belarus as that nation’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko reported yesterday, which you can read more about here.

“Despite the statements of the Russian Ministry of Defense about the transfer of heavy equipment, yesterday [Wagner] columns completed the march to Belarus with all the equipment,” Rybar wrote. “The remnants not involved in the march will indeed be transferred to the [Russian] Armed Forces.”

That concern is apparently shared by Poland, which has a long border with Belarus and says there are some 8,000 Wagner troops there.

As a result, Poland will increase the permanent presence of its defence forces along that border, Deputy Prime Minister and PiS chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, announced at a press conference on Wednesday, according to the Polish TVN24 news outlet

The decision is a response to Wagner’s move into Belarus. Kaczyński added that various fortifications along the border would be further extended.

"We have - at least potentially - a new situation in Belarus,” Kaczyński said, according to TVN24. “The Wagner Group's presence there. According to the data we have at the moment, it could be around 8,000 soldiers.”

Though theoretically exiled to Belarus, Prigozhin's operations in Africa are expected only to grow, Rybar noted. Concern about the fallout from the mutiny attempt is prompting Russian officials to take action there and in Syria, where Wagner also operates.

"Russia’s deputy foreign minister flew to Damascus to personally deliver a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Wagner Group forces would no longer operate there independently," The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. "Senior Russian foreign ministry officials phoned the president of the Central African Republic, whose personal bodyguards include Wagner mercenaries, offering assurances that Saturday’s crisis wouldn’t derail Russia’s expansion into Africa. Government jets from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations shuttled from Syria to Mali, another of Wagner’s key foreign outposts."

Those moves are an example of Putin's attempt to play down the chaos at home and to assure Russia’s partners in Africa and the Middle East that Wagner operations there would continue unabated, the Journal wrote. It citied diplomats and intelligence officers, Wagner defectors, people briefed on the conversations and a review of international flight data.

The new bottom line though is that if Moscow has its way, Wagner's operations will be under new management, according to the Journal.

It isn't clear if Prigozhin poses a threat to Kyiv, although Ukraine does not see another attack from the north as likely, and 8,000 troops is not a large standing force.

So much at this point remains unknown, but one thing is certain.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has a way of keeping the global spotlight shining on him, and staying alive, even after directly challenging the heart of Russia's military authority, with deadly results.

We will update this story when more information comes to light.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com