LONDON (Reuters) – Russia’s top generals have disappeared from the public eye after a failed mercenary mutiny aimed at toppling top leadership while President Vladimir Putin sought to restore his authority and unconfirmed reports of at least one arrest.
Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top general, has not appeared in public or on state television since the aborted mutiny on Saturday, when mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin demanded Gerasimov’s extradition. He has also not been mentioned in a press release from the Ministry of Defense since June 9th.
According to some Western military analysts, 67-year-old Gerasimov is the commander of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the holder of one of Russia’s three “nuclear briefcases”.
Also absent is General Sergey Surovikin, dubbed “General Armageddon” by the Russian press for his aggressive tactics in the Syrian conflict and deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
A New York Times report Tuesday, based on a US intelligence briefing, said he had prior knowledge of the mutiny and that Russian authorities were investigating whether he was complicit.
The Kremlin downplayed the report on Wednesday, saying there was and would be much speculation and rumor.
The Moscow Times Russian-language edition and a military blogger reported on Surovikin’s arrest, while some other military correspondents with a large following in Russia said he and other senior officers were being questioned about their possible role in the mutiny.
Reuters could not determine whether Surovikin had been arrested.
Rybar, an influential channel on the Telegram news application run by a former press secretary for the Russian Defense Ministry, said a purge is underway.
He said authorities were trying to weed out military personnel who allegedly displayed “lack of determination” in putting down the mutiny. According to reports, parts of the armed forces appeared to have done little to stop Wagner fighters in the early stages of the rebellion.
“The armed uprising of the private military company Wagner has become the pretext for a massive purge of the Russian armed forces,” Rybar said.
If confirmed, such a move could change the way Russia is waging its war in Ukraine – which it calls a “special military operation” – and spark unrest within the ranks as Moscow seeks to thwart a Ukrainian counteroffensive .
It could also consolidate or improve the positions of other senior military and security forces deemed loyal.
There was no official comment from the Ministry of Defense on what was happening.
Some Russian and Western military and political analysts believe Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a veteran Putin ally whom Prigozhin wanted to oust over his alleged incompetence with Gerasimov, may actually be more secure in his job.
“I think he (Prigozhin) actually expected something to be done about Shoigu and Gerasimov, that Putin would rule on his behalf,” wrote Michael Kofman, a Russian military specialist at the Carnegie Endowment think tank, on Twitter.
“Instead, his mutiny may have ensured that they remained in office despite being widely acknowledged as incompetent and widely loathed in the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
Viktor Solotov, the head of the National Guard and formerly Putin’s bodyguard, appears to be another beneficiary after publicly declaring his men are willing to “stand to the death” to defend Moscow from Wagner.
He has spoken of the possibility of acquiring heavy weapons and armor for his forces after the mutiny.
Gerasimov was conspicuous by his absence as Putin thanked the army for averting civil war on Tuesday, in contrast to Shoigu, who has since made several public appearances.
Surovikin, Gerasimov’s deputy, was last seen on Saturday in a video appealing to Prigozhin to end his mutiny. He looked exhausted and it was unclear if he was speaking under duress.
On Wednesday evening there were unconfirmed Russian media and blogger reports that Surovikin was being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo internment camp after his arrest.
Alexei Venediktov, a well-connected journalist, said – without citing his sources – that Surovikin had not had any contact with his family since Saturday and that his bodyguards were also silent.
Prigozhin, who for months vilified Shoigu and Gerasimov for their alleged incompetence in the Ukraine war, had frequently praised Zurovikin, who is widely respected in the army, for his experience in Chechnya and Syria.
Surovikin, who served as supreme commander of the Ukraine war before Gerasimov was appointed, is seen as an effective actor by Western military analysts and sections of the Ukrainian military.
Russian war correspondents had described him as a potential future defense minister.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Lisa Shumaker)