by Mike Eckel
A top Russian field commander says he was dismissed after disagreements with superior officers over the situation on the front lines, an unusual public display of dissent from within the Russian ranks after just over 500 days of war in Ukraine.
The complaints by Major General Ivan Popov, which came in an audio message circulated by a prominent Russian lawmaker on July 12, suggest continuing intrigues following last month’s mutiny by the private Wagner mercenary group and its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The mutiny, which saw around 5,000 Wagner soldiers racing toward, then stopping 200 kilometers short of Moscow, lasted around 24 hours. But the effort was the biggest challenge to Vladimir Putin’s 23 years as Russia’s preeminent figure, and observers have looked for signs that the Kremlin could purge military commanders or political figures over the incident.
One prominent army officer, General Sergei Surovikin, who briefly served as overall commander for the Ukraine war and is believed to be a close ally of Prigozhin, has not been seen or heard from since the mutiny erupted on June 24.
In the four-minute recording, Popov, who was the commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army deployed in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzya region, said he had complained to the chief of Russia’s General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, about the need to rotate frontline troops.
Zaporizhzhya is one of several fronts where Ukrainian forces last month launched the beginnings of a widely anticipated counteroffensive. Its troops have made slow advances and fighting is reported to be intense.
Addressing what he called “my dear gladiators,” Popov, whose military call sign was “Spartacus,” complained that Russian forces were being hampered by problems with counterbattery radar and artillery reconnaissance. He said Russian troops were hit with a “blow from the rear.”
Popov reports that he raised questions about the lack of counterbattery combat, artillery reconnaissance stations, and, as a result, the death of Russian soldiers in connection with this.
“Our army could not be broken at the front, by the armed forces of Ukraine. [Instead] we were hit with a blow from the rear by the senior commander; treacherously and vilely decapitating the army at the most difficult and tense moment,” he was heard saying.
“There was a difficult situation with the senior bosses, where it was necessary to either keep quiet and be a coward or to tell it like it is,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Popov was referring to by saying “blow from the rear.”
News of Popov’s dismissal first appeared on a Telegram channel affiliated with the Wagner Group, saying Gerasmiov dismissed him for accusing him of “disinformation and alarmism.”
Hours later, the audio recording of Popov’s message circulated on the Telegram channel of Andrei Gurulyov, a Duma lawmaker who previously served as deputy commander of Russia’s Southern Military District. Gurulyov also was a commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, like Popov.
The identity of the voice on the recording could not be independently verified, and it was unclear when it was made. Russian military bloggers and a handful of lawmakers appeared to confirm Popov was the speaker.
Gurulyov was criticized by other Russian lawmakers, including Andrei Turchak, the deputy chairman of Russia’s upper house of parliament, for releasing Popov’s recording, saying it was not intended to be made public.
Still, Turchak said, Popov’s “conscience is clear. The Motherland can be proud of such commanders.”
Though it remains unclear if Popov’s criticism was intended to be publicized, it was to be the first such complaint of its sort from a serving officer — moreover, it comes from a top field commander.
As of July 13, neither the Defense Ministry nor top commanders had publicly commented on Popov’s firing or resignation.
Popov’s purported demotion came days after the death of another Russian general in Ukraine. Lieutenant General Oleg Tsokov was reported dead on July 11 in the port city of Berdyansk, allegedly killed in a strike of cruise missiles fired by Ukrainian forces.
The Defense Ministry has not commented about Tsokov either, but Gurulyov appeared to confirm Tsokov’s death in comments to state TV on July 11.
Tsokov, like Gurulyov before him, served as deputy commander of the Southern Military District.
A connection between Popov’s resignation, or firing, and Prigozhin’s mutiny last month wasn’t immediately clear.
Unlike with Popov’s criticism, Prigozhin had openly feuded with top commanders overseeing Russia’s invasion in Ukraine for months leading up to the mutiny. He had repeatedly criticized, and mocked, Gerasimov, as well as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in an unusually public way that suggested he had some sort of tacit approval to do so.
Putin has publicly called those soldiers who participated in the mutiny “traitors” who had inflicted a “stab in the back” of Russia. But since then, there has been little public indication of purges or remonstrations or punishment for the mutineers.
Prigozhin, for his part, has been mostly out of public view, though he was reported to have traveled to Belarus, and then later was reported to be traveling openly in Russia. The Kremlin has admitted Prigozhin attended a meeting with Putin and others, including unit commanders from Wagner, on June 29.
Surovikin, meanwhile, has not been seen nor heard from since the initial hours of the mutiny, fueling speculation that he has been arrested.
Another prominent Russian lawmaker, Andrei Kartapolov, chairman of the Duma’s Armed Services Committee, was asked on July 12 if he knew where Surovikin currently was.
“He’s on holiday. Out of touch,” he said in a video posted on Telegram.
The Wall Street Journal, citing “people familiar with the situation,” said that the Kremlin’s efforts to purge military officers suspected of disloyalty included at least 13 senior officers detained for questioning, and around 15 suspended from duty or fired.
Gerasimov, who also has been out of public view since the mutiny, was shown in a video released by the Defense Ministry on July 10 attending a meeting at Southern Military District headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don.
When Surovikin was removed as overall commander of the Ukraine invasion in January, he was replaced by Gerasimov.
Western officials have watched the mutiny and its aftermath closely, trying to determine what effects it may have on the Ukraine war, not to mention the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The commander of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on July 13 that Russia’s leadership suffered from a significant amount of “friction and confusion” since the mutiny, but it wasn’t fully clear what the effect on the battlefield would be.
“At the strategic level it is pretty clear that you have a significant amount of friction and confusion,” General Mark Milley told reporters while traveling in Asia.
“There’s a lot of drama going on at the very senior levels. How that’s all going to play out at the end of the day? I’m not so sure yet,” he was quoted as saying. “I don’t think we’re done with it. I think there’s many more chapters to be heard on that.”