A high-ranking Russian general had prior knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to revolt against Russia’s military leadership, according to US officials briefed on US intelligence on the matter, raising questions about what support the mercenary leader had within the military. higher ranks.
The officials said they are 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 on the battle lines after Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year, analysts say. He was replaced as top commander in January, but retained his influence on war operations and remains popular with the troops.
US officials also said there are indications that other Russian generals may have also supported Prigozhin’s attempt to forcibly change the leadership of the Defense Ministry. Current and former US officials said Prigozhin would not have launched the uprising on him unless he believed others in positions of power would come to his aid.
If General Surovikin was involved in the events of the past weekend, 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 broader fracture between the supporters of Prigozhin and those of Putin. Putin’s two main military advisers: Sergei K. Shoigu, Defense Minister, and General Valery V. Gerasimov, Chief of Staff.
Putin must now decide, the officials say, whether he believes General Surovikin helped Prigozhin and how he should respond.
On Tuesday, Russia’s national intelligence agency said it would drop criminal charges of “armed mutiny” against Prigozhin and members of his force. But if Putin finds evidence that General Surovikin helped Prigozhin more directly, he will have no choice but to remove him from his command, officials and analysts say.
Some former officials say Putin could decide to stay with General Surovikin if he concludes that he had some knowledge of what Prigozhin had planned but did not help him. For now, analysts said, Putin appears intent on blaming the mutiny solely on Prigozhin.
“Putin is reluctant to change people,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “But if the secret service puts files on Putin’s desk and if some files implicate Surovikin, it can change.”
Senior US officials suggest that an alliance between General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin could explain why Mr. Prigozhin is still alive, despite seizing a major Russian military center and ordering an armed march on Moscow.
US officials and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence. They stressed that much of what the United States and its allies know is preliminary. US officials have avoided speaking publicly about the rebellion, fearing it would feed into Putin’s narrative that the riots were orchestrated by the West.
Still, US officials have an interest in spreading information that undermines the position of General Surovikin, whom they view as more competent and ruthless than other members of the commando. His removal would undoubtedly benefit Ukraine, whose Western-backed troops are pushing a new counteroffensive that aims to try to retake territory seized by 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 only waiting for the internal political situation to worsen in our country.”
But a former official called that message “a hostage video.” General Surovikin’s body language suggested he was uncomfortable denouncing a former ally who shared his view of Russian military leadership, the former official said.
There were other signs of divided loyalties in the higher ranks. Another Russian general, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev, made his own video appeal, calling any action against the Russian state a “stab in the back for the country and the president.” But hours later, he appeared in another video, chatting with Prigozhin in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where Wagner’s fighters seized military installations.
“Too many weird things happened that I think suggest there was collusion that we haven’t figured out yet,” Michael McFaul, a 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 to do anything?”
Independent experts and US and allied officials said Mr. Prigozhin appeared to believe that a large part of the Russian military would side with him as his convoy moved towards Moscow.
Mr. Prigozhin had worked with General Surovikin during Russia’s military intervention in Syria and described him as the most capable commander in the Russian army. Former officials said General Surovikin did not support removing Putin from power, but he appears to have agreed with Prigozhin that Shoigu and General Gerasimov needed to be removed.
“Surovikin is a decorated general with a complex history,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “Soldiers are said to respect him and consider him competent.”
General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin have clashed with Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov over the tactics used in Ukraine. While the overall performance of the Russian military in the war has been widely derided as disappointing, analysts have 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 were nearly surrounded last fall and out of supplies. Based on communications intercepts, US officials concluded that a frustrated General Surovikin represented a faction of hardline generals trying to use the toughest tactics against the Ukrainians.
Similarly, Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries achieved some success in taking the eastern city of Bakhmut after a nine-month effort in which, by Mr. Prigozhin’s own count, some 20,000 Wagner soldiers were killed. US officials and military analysts say tens of thousands of soldiers have died fighting for Bakhmut, including Wagner’s soldiers who were ex-convicts with little training before being sent to war. Prigozhin frequently complained that top Russian military and defense officials were not supplying his troops with enough weapons.
Russia’s entire military campaign in the Ukraine has been characterized by a musical chair of changing generals. Last fall, when General Surovikin was put in charge of the Russian army effort in the Ukraine, he was the second man to get the job, replacing a general who had lasted just a month. General Surovikin didn’t last much longer, but he performed much better during the weeks he commanded.
However, in January, General Surovikin was demoted, and Putin handed over direct command of the war to General Gerasimov, who vowed to put Russian forces back on the offensive. The demotion of General Surovikin, Russian and military analysts say, was widely seen as a blow to Prigozhin.