A Russian general is believed to have been detained in connection to failed rebellion
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A senior Russian general has been detained in Moscow in connection with the failed rebellion of Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin over the weekend. American officials said earlier this week that General Sergey Surovikin appeared to have known about the rebellion in advance. Joining us from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes. And, Charles, tell us more about what's going on.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, people have been really tight-lipped here in Moscow about what happened. The Kremlin and Russia's Ministry of Defense have certainly refused to comment on General Sergey Surovikin's whereabouts. But our colleague, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, was able to confirm with a senior U.S. official that they believe Surovikin has been detained by Russian authorities without providing further details.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about who the general is and what he's believed to have done.
MAYNES: Yeah, no - sure. It's important to go back to last Saturday and the ease with which Wagner took the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. This is a major military hub. In Prigozhin's words, his mercenaries took the city without firing a shot, and they marched on Moscow more or less unimpeded as well. That's fed rumors that Prigozhin had, if not help, then certainly sympathizers inside the military. Now, U.S. officials zeroed in on General Sergey Surovikin, who was briefly put in charge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last winter.
Surovikin was the one behind this Russian strategy of bombing Ukrainian infrastructure to try and freeze the country into submission. It didn't work, and Putin ultimately demoted Surovikin in favor of the chief of general staff, who's been one of the objects of Prigozhin's ire. So the question - was Surovikin somehow tipped off or involved in this uprising against his bosses? Prigozhin has been a fan of his. And what we know is this - last we heard from him was during the uprising this past Saturday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SERGEY SUROVIKIN: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: So this is Surovikin in a video address in which he called on Prigozhin and Wagner to stand down on the orders of President Putin, saying the rebellion only aided Russia's enemies. But Surovikin hasn't been seen in public since that moment.
SHAPIRO: So what else can you tell us about the relationship between Surovikin and Prigozhin?
MAYNES: Well, from what we know publicly, the two men's lives intersected amid Russia's intervention in Syria, where Surovikin was in charge of the Russian air campaign. It's where he made his name as a brutal but effective commander. While in Syria, Prigozhin's Wagner forces were fighting unofficially. You have to remember this is back in 2015, when Wagner was still a shadow operation used by the Kremlin. Now, fast-forward to the war in Ukraine, and as the initial invasion stalled, Prigozhin and other hard-liners lobbied for Surovikin to take charge. They felt that he could succeed where the military's top brass had failed.
SHAPIRO: It seems like there's a lot of reading tea leaves here, sort of tracing the relationships and the potential influences and alliances. Is there any reason to look at this the other way, to doubt that Surovikin would take part in something like the weekend's uprising?
MAYNES: Sure. You know, it's been pointed out by Western military analysts that after his demotion from commanding the Ukraine operation, Surovikin was put back in charge of the air forces in Ukraine. Yet amid Saturday's uprising, those killed in fighting with Wagner forces were Russian air servicemen - in other words, Surovikin's men. So would he really have ordered them to attack Wagner if he was somehow in on this uprising? We just don't know the answer to that. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin argues this insurrection failed because Russian society, including his military, rallied around the government, and Prigozhin was an isolated figure. Many would argue that is President Putin putting a brave face on the crisis. But one thing is clear - you know, rumors that the Kremlin is vetting loyalties or weighing a purge are swirling here, and they're not likely to stop soon.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.
MAYNES: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.