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Vladimir Putin has moved to shake up Russia’s security services in the wake of the Wagner group’s failed insurrection, rewarding loyalists with promotions and freezing out figures sympathetic to the paramilitary organisation’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Sergei Surovikin, a senior Russian general known to have a good relationship with Prigozhin, has not been seen since recording a hostage-style video in the early hours of Saturday morning as the mutiny began, according to several people familiar with the matter.
The unexplained absence of one of the most prominent commanders in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine comes as Putin seeks to restore order and re-establish control over the security services after the first coup attempt in Russia in three decades, said the people.
While Putin has dropped charges against Wagner, Russia’s security forces “have started shaking down sympathisers and those who violated their oath”, said a person who has known Prigozhin since the 1990s. The warlord has held up his end of the deal and moved to Belarus, according to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
By contrast, Viktor Zolotov, a longtime Putin ally and former bodyguard to the president, has been rewarded with a promotion for his police force, the National Guard. The service did not play a big role in suppressing the mutiny, but Putin on Tuesday announced Zolotov will receive heavy artillery and tanks and play a larger role in the invasion of Ukraine. Zolotov said he was in touch with the president throughout the uprising.
The Kremlin is elevating other figures who have publicly professed their loyalty to Putin, while denying such promotions to Russia’s patriotic hardliners, who urged the president to go even further in his invasion and, in some cases, criticised his deal to end the Wagner uprising.
Putin “knows they look weak” after Russia dropped charges against Wagner to avoid an open firefight that would have likely killed thousands, said a sanctioned figure within Russia’s elite.
“It’s real tough guy stuff,” the person said. “It’s like when you go into the prison cell for the first time and punch the biggest guy you can find in the face to show nobody can mess with you.”
The Kremlin has dismissed rumours about Surovikin’s absence after the New York Times reported, citing US officials, that the general was aware of the coup plot in advance. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that he expected “a lot of speculation around these events”, adding: “I think this is an example of that.”
Prigozhin’s plan for the mutiny against defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Surovikin’s commanding officer, Valery Gerasimov, was widely known in Russian security circles in the days before the former Kremlin caterer declared his “march for justice” on Friday evening, according to people familiar with the matter.
In his video message on Saturday, Surovikin appeared unhappy when appealing to Wagner fighters to stand down, even as he cradled a machine gun. He faced pressure because of his friendly relationship with Prigozhin rather than suspicions he had been among the coup plotters, the people familiar with the matter said.
Surovikin was the point of contact between Prigozhin and the military establishment in Moscow, working closely with the Wagner paramilitary contingent fighting on the front line in east Ukraine.
While Prigozhin railed against other generals and the defence elite, he maintained a good relationship with Surovikin.
The general, meanwhile, clashed with the ministry’s top brass over tactics and strategy in Ukraine, leading Putin to demote him and launch a new offensive in January.
Surovikin and other Wagner-friendly generals, such as Mikhail Mizintsev, “were running around like idiots trying to convince [Prigozhin] to stop. Now they’re being treated like they could be traitors,” the person added.
Though Surovikin appeared sympathetic to Prighozin’s plans, the US is unsure whether he took any steps to support the uprising, said a person familiar with the matter. US officials are trying to learn more about his involvement, and believe there are also signs other Russian generals may have felt similarly, they said.
Nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his blanket bombardment tactics when leading Russian forces in Syria, Surovikin was the darling of the vocal and influential community of pro-war military bloggers.
Now, the coup has seen him fall sharply out of favour, the people said.
“At first, in the split between Shoigu and Gerasimov and Surovikin, who thought it was acceptable to interact with Wagner, Putin sided with the latter,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre.
“But later the scales tipped in favour of Shoigu and Gerasimov.”
The main winner from the coup, Stanovaya said, appeared to be Shoigu, who had apparently succeeded in dismantling Wagner and convincing Putin to swing his authority behind the defence ministry.
“Whatever Surovikin’s real role was, Shoigu can be tempted to paint him as a plotter. It’s very easy to turn sympathisers into plotters,” she said.
While Surovikin has been off the radar for days, both Shoigu and Zolotov — who has little involvement in international co-operation — appeared in the news on Wednesday when they met top Iranian security officials.
“The National Guard has proven to be the only structure that has established at least some kind of defensive line against Prigozhin. They are trying to milk it,” said Stanovaya.