“Purge” in Russia: Sergej Surovikin, the all-too-perfect scapegoat?

The Kremlin appears to have found a scapegoat in the crisis that began with Yevgeny Prigojine’s rebellion. The arrest of General Sergei Surovikin, announced by The Moscow Times, gives the impression that a purge has begun.

This soldier, reputed to be close to the head of the Wagner Group and hostile to the Minister of Defense, Sergei Choigou, has the ideal profile. But beware of deceptive appearances.

The hunt for designated “accomplices” or scapegoats for Yevgeny Prigojine’s failed rebellion appears to have begun in Russia. The “activists” – these ultra-conservative Russian military observers and very active on Telegram – provoke the beginning of a purge or at least an “opportunity to get rid of the least loyal elements”, noted the American channel CNN.

Several names are circulating on Russian social networks. The sacrificial lambs could thus be Mikhail Mizintsev, the former deputy defense minister responsible for the siege of Mariupol, or even Roman Gavrilov, former head of the National Guard. They have disappeared from circulation since the start of Yevgeny Prigojine’s rebellion.

Sergei Surovikin arrested?

Previously, both were suspected of having joined the ranks of the Wagner group, and “they were already on Vladimir Putin’s blacklist”, emphasizes Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center .

But it’s another name that’s causing the most ink to flow at the moment: that of Sergei Surovikin. The former head of military operations in Ukraine between October 2022 and January 2023 has reportedly been arrested, the Moscow Times reported on Wednesday, June 28.

“He is currently not on good terms with the authorities. That’s all I can say,” an anonymous Defense Ministry source told the Moscow Times. A statement that seems to go in the direction of the words of “activist” Vladimir Romanov, who said on Telegram on Wednesday that the general had been arrested on Sunday.

The reason: he would have taken up the case for Evguéni Prigojine in the conflict, which opposed the head of the Wagner Group to the Ministry of Defense experts. “One detail that surprised many observers is that when Sergej Surovikin spoke in a video to ask Yevgeny Prigojine to stop on Sunday, he was in military uniform but without his epaulettes, which is unusual for an officer of his rank. For some were it was a sign that he had already been arrested at that time,” said Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath.

He was also declared the “rebel’s” main accomplice by the American daily New York Times in an article as explosive as it was controversial, published on Tuesday, June 27. The newspaper maintains that the American intelligence services have become certain that Sergej Surovikin was aware of Yevgeny Prigojine’s plans, but had decided not to do anything to help him, even indirectly.

“Revelations” which were taken with a grain of salt by the experts interviewed by France 24 and other observers of Russian political life. “Sergei Surovikin is not a good person, but he is a dangerously competent general. Ukraine”, writes Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russian politics, on Twitter, reminding that this is only speculation on his part.

General “Armaggedon” versus the Minister of Defense

Indeed, Sergei Surovikin has a reputation for being a soldier “who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals,” emphasizes Jeff Hawn. He demonstrated this in Syria, where he was in charge of Russian military operations.

“He was the one who ordered the intensive bombing without stopping knowing that there would inevitably be a large number of civilian casualties,” adds Jeff Hawn. His Syrian “exploitation” has earned him the nickname General “Armageddon”. It was also there that he met Evguéni Prigojine. Legend has it that he got on very well with Wagner’s leader and took the opportunity to use his mercenaries in the field.

But for Jeff Hawn, if Sergei Surovikin is really in trouble with the authorities, it’s probably not because of the New York Times article or his connections with Yevgeny Prigojine: “It’s probably more connected to the antagonism between him and the current Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu”, he assures.

While in command of operations in Ukraine, General “Armaggedon” ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops to Kherson and began to establish a defensive line. “He was the one who moved the Russian army from an offensive to a defensive position. It was probably the right military strategy, but from a political point of view it was a failure for Sergei Shoigu”, explains Jeff Hawn.

The arrest of this influential general is only a hypothesis. “He may very well only be interrogated by the FSB or keep as low a profile as possible like all those in Moscow suspected of having connections with Yevgeny Prigojine”, emphasizes Stephen Hall.

This expert can hardly imagine a general so popular among the soldiers behind bars at the moment. “The morale of the army is already very low, if Vladimir Putin attacks one of the rare high-ranking officers who are still respected by the soldiers, it will destabilize them even more. A decision that must be avoided in this period of Ukrainian counter-offensive,” he said.

Another element that could save Sergei Surovikin from prison, even if he was guilty: the New York Times article. Paradoxically, this is its best asset because “Vladimir Putin will not take the risk of appearing to react according to the claims of an American newspaper”, assures Stephen Hall.

Scoring in Moscow

In any case, the arrest does not fit well with the analysis that the experts interviewed by France 24 are making of the current situation in Russia. In their eyes, there is no ongoing purge (yet) in Moscow. “It would be a very bad time for such a potentially very destabilizing campaign for the entire military, and a purge requires taking very severe sanctions and announcing them publicly, which is not happening,” says Jeff Hawn.

The period is too chaotic to be a purge that must be very well organized and carried out with an iron fist. “At the moment, we are rather witnessing the settlement of accounts on the background of Evguéni Prigojine’s rebellion”, assesses Stephen Hall.

There are many who both at the bottom and at the top of the military ladder seem to want to take advantage of the situation to oust a competitor or an enemy.

Thus, “we saw officers posting videos of other soldiers sleeping at the station, making sure it was just when Yevgeny Prigojine was marching toward Moscow with his men,” says Jeff Hawn. And at the top there is Sergei Shoigu, who “could tell himself that after letting go of a rival – Wagner’s boss – why not try to sideline another (Sergei Surovikin)”, according to Stephen Hall.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin will have to appoint one or more scapegoats. “The ease with which Yevgeny Prigojine was able to approach Moscow paints a very bad picture of the Ministry of Defense. We need someone who can be charged instead of Sergei Shoigu,” assures Jeff Hawn.

The Kremlin master seems to have not yet decided who will pay for the broken pots. These could be soldiers who are already in the crosshairs of the Russian president in any case, such as Mikhail Mizintsev or Roman Gavrikov.

Or another man who hasn’t heard from him since the weekend: Valeri Guerassimov, Sergei Choigou’s right-hand man and current head of operations in Ukraine.

The latter “is used to being wandered from one position to another”, notes Stephen Hall. His Wikipedia file actually reads like a Prévert-style enumeration of duties in all branches of the army.

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