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Russia’s ‘General Armageddon’ removed from post – having not been seen in public since Wagner mutiny

Sergei Surovikin has not been seen in public since the short-lived rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenaries

Chris Stevenson
Wednesday 23 August 2023 18:32 BST
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Russian president Vladimir Putin awards a medal to General Sergei Surovikin last December
Russian president Vladimir Putin awards a medal to General Sergei Surovikin last December (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

A military commander dubbed “General Armageddon” for his brutality during Syria’s civil war has been removed as the head of Russia’s air force, having not been seen in public since the mutiny by Wagner mercenaries against Moscow at the end of June.

Sergei Surovikin, a former commander of Russia’s troops in Ukraine who was previously awarded his nation’s top military honour, has not been publicly sacked – but state media has published sources confirming the move. He was given his moniker in recognition of the brutal tactics he deployed in Syria’s civil war, and was regarded as one of Russia’s most effective commanders.

General Surovikin – who is believed to have close ties to Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin – is the most senior military figure to have lost his position over the attempted uprising, which took place over a 24-hour period from 23 to 24 June. Russian president Vladimir Putin reacted with fury to the mutiny, which saw Mr Prigrozhin’s forces attempt to march on Moscow in protest at the way in which Moscow’s military top brass were handling the invasion of Ukraine. President Putin said that the revolt – the most significant threat to his leadership in years – could have tipped Russia into civil war.

The march on Moscow was eventually halted about 125 miles outside the capital after a deal was brokered between Mr Prigozhin and the Kremlin via Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. The terms of the arrangement allowed for the Wagner founder and some of his troops to decamp to Belarus and leave combat operations in Ukraine, where they had been involved in some of the fiercest fighting seen in the war so far. Mr Prigozhin has been photographed in St Petersburg and Belarus in recent weeks, and posted a video on Monday that he suggested had been shot in Africa, one of Wagner’s other theatres of combat. The two men Mr Prigozhin had wanted to topple – defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff – remain in their posts.

General Surovikin’s last public appearance was on 24 June, when he appeared in what looked like a carefully stage-managed video. Visibly strained and without insignia, he urged Mr Prigozhin to abandon his march on Moscow. Since that day, speculation has been rampant about General Surovikin’s fate. Some Russian news outlets and sources have said that the general, who was often publicly praised by Mr Prigozhin in the run-up to the revolt, was being questioned over possible complicity, and that he was potentially being held under house arrest. General Surovikin’s daughter told the Russian social media channel Baza in late June that her father had not been arrested.

US officials have previously told American media that General Surovikin was supportive of Mr Prigozhin, but that Western intelligence did not know with certainty whether he had helped the rebellion in any way.

Of the latest move, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, citing an anonymous source, reported that General Surovikin had been replaced as commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces by Colonel General Viktor Afzalov, who heads the main staff of the air force. The agency frequently represents the official position of the Kremlin, through reports citing anonymous officials in Russia’s defence and security establishment. The RBC newspaper reported a defence personnel source saying: “Army General Sergei Surovikin has been relieved of his position in connection with his transfer to a different role ... He is currently on a short holiday.”

The television personality Ksenia Sobchak, who is the daughter of a politician with links to Mr Putin, suggested that General Surovikin had not been in touch with his relatives. “They say that he was relieved of his post on 18 August by way of closed decree. The family still has had no contact with him,” she wrote on Telegram.

General Surovikin was placed in charge of Russian military operations in Ukraine last October, but in January that role was handed to General Gerasimov while General Surovikin was made a deputy.

News of the dismissal of General Surovikin came as another drone attack targeted Moscow, believed to be the sixth such assault in a week. The Ukrainian intelligence agency also claimed it had destroyed a key S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system in Russian-occupied Crimea. Such a loss would be another embarrassing blow for the Kremlin, as Ukraine increasingly targets Russia’s assets far behind the front line in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Speaking about the drone attack on the Russian capital, Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin said that one drone had smashed into a building under construction in Moscow City, a prestigious business complex that has been hit by drones twice before. Several windows were broken in two buildings nearby, and emergency services responded to the incident. Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have downed all of the drones in Moscow and the surrounding area.

Earlier, a three-hour night-time drone attack by Russia in Ukraine’s southern region of Odesa overnight on Tuesday caused a blaze at grain facilities, according to the head of the Odesa Regional Military Administration, Oleh Kiper.

Elsewhere, a Russian drone attack on the city of Romny in northeastern Ukraine struck a local school, killing the principal, his deputy, a secretary and the school librarian, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. Three people were also killed in the Belgorod region of Russia on the Ukrainian border during the repeated shelling of a sanatorium, according to the region’s governor.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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