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US intelligence: Top Russian general knew of Wagner rebellion in advance

Officials also claim there are indications other Russian generals may have supported Prigozhin’s attempt to forcibly change the leadership of the Defense Ministry

Sergey Surovikin and Vladimir Putin
Sergey Surovikin and Vladimir Putin, on December 31, 2022.MIKHAEL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/KREML (EFE)
M. J.

Sergey Surovikin, a prominent Russian general, commander of the Aerospace Forces and a former overall commander of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was aware of the plans of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, to rebel against Moscow’s authority, according to senior officials and anonymous U.S. intelligence sources quoted Tuesday by The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal also claims that Prigozhin was planning to take control of the Russian military forces but that he had to bring forward his move when the plot was discovered, according to Western intelligence sources.

Alleged knowledge of Prigozhin’s plans leaves Surovikin in a delicate position vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin and further highlights the “cracks” in the Russian president’s regime, as referred to last Sunday by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A Kremlin spokesman on Wednesday dismissed The New York Times report as “rumors and speculation.”

General Surovikin is a similar figure to Prigozhin himself. A ruthless war hero who successfully fashioned a meteoric career replete with violent scandals under his command and battles won, such as in Syria and Chechnya, with brutality. Surovikin was promoted to sole commander of the Russian offensive in Ukraine in October 2022, to the applause of Prigozhin and the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. But Surovikin’s command was short-lived: Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu appointed Valery Gerasimov in his place in January.

The alleged prior knowledge of Prigozhin’s intentions by such a prominent general raises questions about the backing the Wagner chief had when he directed his forces toward Moscow last Saturday. According to The New York Times, U.S. intelligence is trying to ascertain whether Surovikin, a popular figure among Russian troops, also had a hand in Prigozhin’s aborted rebellion.

U.S. officials also claim there are indications that other Russian generals may have supported Prigozhin’s attempt to forcibly change the leadership of the Defense Ministry, headed by Shoigu, an avowed enemy of the Wagner chief. Current and former U.S. officials are of the opinion Prigozhin would not have launched his uprising unless he believed others in positions of power would come to his aid.

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Prigozhin had originally planned to capture Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov during a planned visit by the two to the Ukrainian border. However, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) became aware of those plans two days before they were to be executed. This forced Prigozhin to alter his plans and march on Moscow, making it easier for the Kremlin to quell the rebellion.

Shoigu is in such a weak position that Russia’s own pro-war social media channels denounced that the video of his reappearance three days after the rebellion was recorded earlier. “The expert consensus is that it is very likely that Alexey Dyumin - Putin’s former bodyguard and the current governor of Tula - will become the new defense minister, and General Surovikin the chief of the General Staff,” Sergey Markov, a former Putin adviser close to the president, said on Monday.

However, if Surovikin was aware of the revolt, Putin will have to decide whether he trusts him, especially if he facilitated it in any way. For now, the Russian president has tried to point the finger firmly at Prigozhin, who is in Belarus and will not face charges as part of the deal he reached with the Russian government to stand down.

When the rebellion broke out, Surovikin was one of the first to urge the mercenaries to return to their bases. “The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to worsen in our country,” he said in a video posted on Telegram. U.S. intelligence sources believe this was a speech imposed on him, which the general was uncomfortable with.

At a press conference Tuesday, the Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, insisted the official U.S. remains the actions of the Wagner Group is purely an internal Russian problem, but one that U.S. leaders should keep an eye on nonetheless.

Ryder did not comment on what effect the aborted mutiny may have on the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian forces. “The war there continues, Russia’s illegal occupation continues. We are not going to lose sight of those facts. And we’re going to continue to work closely with them to provide them with the kinds of capabilities that they need to execute the operation that they planned, and that they’re conducting,” Ryder said in reference to the counteroffensive.

For her part, White House deputy spokeswoman Olivia Dalton told a press conference: “As you know, we are continuing to monitor the situation closely and stay in close coordination with allies and partners across the globe. You saw the President, Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, doing that across the weekend, into Monday. And certainly, the President continues to be briefed on this situation and is monitoring it very closely. We don’t have a perfect picture right now of what is happening. But we want to continue to make one thing very, very clear, and that is that we resolutely stand by and support Ukraine.”

Asked about the alarm in the countries bordering Belarus over the movement of Wagner’s forces there, Dalton added said: “I’m not going to get into any sort of speculation about this situation. We’re continuing to monitor it closely [...] That said, we remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO Alliance, which of course includes Poland. And we are going to stay in close touch with our partners and allies to make sure we continue to monitor this closely and responsibly.”

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