Did the Wagner Group have supporters within Russia's army?
President Vladmir Putin has said Russian security forces were united in their response to the uprising by the Wagner Group.
In the days since the brief revolt by the Wagner Group fighters and their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared in public several times, praising the Russian security forces as being "united" in their response and having prevented "civil war" in Russia.
But how were the fighters in the private military company able to take control of the southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don so easily, with little resistance? How did they occupy the air base in Millerovo, further north, and other military facilities along the route to Moscow, before stopping some 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Russian capital? And did Prigozhin have support from within the Russian military?
Who was supporting Prigozhin?
"The question of collaboration is certainly one to consider. The Wagner troops were using large-scale equipment from the Russian army," said Gustav Gressel, a military expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The Wagner fighters had been dependent on the army to restock their supplies, he said.
Gressel doesn't think it likely that no one in the Russian army was aware of the planned insurrection ahead of time. After all, he said, the Wagner fighters would have still been in possession of Russian army equipment after their withdrawal from the front lines in Ukraine and would have used it on their march to Moscow.
"The convoy went through Rostov and Voronezh — both home to important garrisons," said Gressel. "Aside from the regular army units training there, this is where Russian troops receive their final preparations before being sent out on combat operations. That no one was on hand to oppose the Wagner fighters is very, very peculiar."
What did General Sergei Surovikin know about the Wagner revolt?
On June 27, The New York Times published an article citing US intelligence sources who believed General Sergei Surovikin and other high-ranking members of the Russian military had advance knowledge of Prigozhin's mutiny.
Surovikin was the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine from October 2022 to January 2023, before being demoted to deputy commander and replaced by general staff chief Valery Gerasimov. According to the Times, US representatives are now looking into whether Surovikin may have even been involved in Prigozhin's insurrection plans.
Surovikin hasn't been seen since the rebellion began, and is believed to have been detained. It's not clear whether he faces any charges. Gerasimov has also not appeared in public.
Observers, however, are skeptical of these claims. "Surovikin is currently head of the Russian air force, and these were the only troops to fight back against the Wagner troops and attack from the air. That doesn't really fit with the image of a traitor," said Gressel.
The fact that "General Armageddon," as Surovikin has been nicknamed by Western media for his brutal tactics in Syria and Ukraine, does not have a high opinion of Gerasimov and that Putin replaced him as head of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was also not grounds for suspicion, said Gressel. Surovikin had always been clear with Putin on his views of the ongoing conflict, even when it came to the withdrawal from Kherson in November 2022, which Putin had rejected.
Mark Galeotti, a political scientist at University College London who specializes in Russian security affairs, wrote on Twitter on June 28 that claims that Surovikin, whom he called a "dangerously competent general," knew in advance of Prigozhin's planned revolt might have been an "info op" by Surovikin's opponents.
"Surovikin quickly issued a public appeal to Wagner mercs to stand down, making a clear statement that — contrary to previous suspicions he was close to Prigozhin — he was loyal to the Kremlin," wrote Galeotti.
He believes this statement could help Surovikin to "cleanse his record" and eventually take over once again as head of Russia's "special operation" in Ukraine, or even the position of general staff chief after Gerasimov. "This is just speculation, but suggesting complicity with Prigozhin's treachery — to use Putin's words — would seem a good way of helping derail his return," said Galeotti.
Surovikin sided with Kremlin 'in the right moment'
The way the uprising went down, there's a lot to be said against the personal involvement of Surovikin or someone else within the top military leadership, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a researcher at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin.
Stanovaya thinks Prigozhin wanted to force Putin to pay more attention to the Wagner Group and provide the fighters with more support. She believes there were no preparations for the revolt, or thoughts on whether the path to Moscow was free or would lead to certain death. However, she doesn't discount the idea that Surovikin knew of the plans. "But in the right moment, he clearly sided with the Russian state," she wrote on Telegram.
Stanovaya, the founder of political analysis firm R.Politik, pointed out that the divisions between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov, on the one side, and Surovikin on the other, have been clear for a long time. For that reason, she said, it was less of a power struggle and more of question over the future of the Ukraine invasion — and the relationship with private armies like the Wagner Group.
In contrast to Shoigu and Gerasimov, Surovikin has at least developed a working relationship with Prigozhin and his Wagner forces, even acting as an intermediary. In early May 2023, he was involved in the effort to supply Wagner fighters with much-needed ammunition. "This role was undoubtedly arranged with Putin," said Stanovaya.
The Wall Street Journal, citing Western intelligence, said the Wagner forces initially wanted to detain Shoigu and Gerasimov in the southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. But Russia's main domestic security agency, the FSB, apparently caught wind of these plans, forcing the Wagner fighters to "improvise."
The WSJ said Prigozhin may have let a number of leading military officials in on his plans, including possibly Surovikin. But it remains unclear how the FSB got its information about the revolt in the first place.
Growing mistrust among Russian military officers
What also remains unclear is how Surovikin's ties to the Wagner Group will influence his future. The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reported that Surovikin was named an honorary member of the mercenary group back in 2017 — citing the fact that the general had received a personal badge with the number M-3744 as evidence.
Even Kremlin-friendly war correspondents have noted a growing mistrust among Russian military officers. "Federal investigators and representatives of the Federal Protective Service have been dealing with both the military leadership and unit commanders for days," wrote one correspondent on the influential Rybar Telegram channel. At the same time, according to various sources, "purges" aren't happening just among the military leadership, but also among subordinate officers and regular soldiers.
"I believe Prigozhin had sympathizers in the army," said Stanovaya. "Although it would be better to categorize them as people unhappy with Shoigu and Putin. But can these sympathizers be considered as conspirators, and can that be used as an excuse to carry out purges?"
Stanovaya believes Shoigu, in particular, will use the opportunity presented by the short-lived revolt to bolster his position by removing those who may undermine his standing. "I have a strong suspicion that Shoigu, of all people, will end up as the main beneficiary. Since getting rid of Prigozhin, Putin has developed an aversion to private armies," she said. "Now he can concentrate on his own army."