Russian Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov dismissed after criticizing Defense Ministry

The abrupt dismissal of a top general commanding one of Russia’s elite military forces in Ukraine has laid bare the armed forces’ continuing divisions as President Vladimir Putin grapples with the fallout from a rebel mercenary lion that posed the biggest challenge that Russia has faced. leader

Major General Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, a force known in Russia for its role in the wars in Ukraine and Chechnya, said in a leaked audio message that he had been fired after criticizing leaders of the Ministry of Defence, accusing them of “beheading the army in a treacherous and vile manner at the most difficult and tense moment”.

Russia’s Defense Ministry does not comment on the firings and has not said anything publicly about Popov. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to a request for comment.

The general’s harsh criticism echoes attacks by Wagner’s boss, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who led a military mutiny on June 24 in what he claimed was an effort to topple Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov , the Russian Chief of Staff. In the weeks leading up to his aborted march on Moscow, Prigozhin lambasted men for military leadership failures in Ukraine, recording a series of graphic and obscenity-laden tirades from the front lines.

“The division continues in the army,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked political consultant. “There is dissatisfaction among a significant part of the leadership. Of course, this undermines the morale of the army.”

Fractures in Russia’s military underscore the risks of Putin’s remote and tone-deaf leadership after he failed to address the bitter dispute between Prigozhin and his military command. Prigozhin’s rebellion appeared, in part, to be a wild attempt to get Putin’s attention. After the rebellion, however, the president stood by Shoigu and Gerasimov, even though both are widely regarded as incompetent by pro-war Russian nationalists.

Putin met with Wagner’s boss Prigozhin after the riot, Kremlin says

Cracks in the chain of command also portend the dangers for Putin of a protracted war with high casualties, multiple military setbacks and no clear end. The Kremlin says Russia is fighting an existential war against NATO and is saving the world from “Nazis” in Ukraine as well as the United States and a shadowy global elite, a call analysts say may be less persuasive as the conflict drags on. activated

After the rebellion, commanders perceived to be close to Prigozhin, including General Sergei Surovikin, who was often praised by Wagner’s leader, have been questioned by Russian investigators seeking to banish those who were disloyal or who knew the cause by Prigozhin. plans

Surovikin’s whereabouts are not publicly known. On Wednesday, Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the State Duma’s defense committee, said he was “resting” and unavailable. Moscow’s Public Supervision Commission wrote on Thursday that he was not being held in any of the capital’s pre-trial detention centers.

A European security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said there were “some indicators” that Surovikin had been detained. His daughter and other family members had been trying to contact him for three days without success, the security official said.

Markov said Surovikin was likely interrogated for many hours by different investigative teams. It was clear, he added, that “Surovikin has been advised not to go anywhere or talk to anyone, and to sit quietly.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said rumors swirling about the arrests of senior military officials could compel obedience from many members of the Russian elite, but speculation and statements like Popov’s were also “a feature of war fatigue among the elites”.

“In the future, it could play a negative role for Putin,” he said.

Popov’s explosive comments to his men were posted on Telegram not by a government critic, but by Andrei Gurulyov, a lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party.

The general, whose call sign is “Spartak,” referred to his soldiers as “gladiators” in the leaked audio message, saying he was fired “within a day” after “outlining all the existing problems in the army” in figures “at the top.”

“A difficult situation arose with the high authorities, when we had to remain silent and cowardly and say what they wanted to hear, or call a spade a spade,” Popov said. “On behalf of you and our fallen battle friends, I had no right to lie.”

Popov’s removal sparked outrage from Russian nationalist hawks and pro-war bloggers, an increasingly influential, vocal and unpredictable force in Russian society. Many of them have a massive following on social media and have not been shy about criticizing Shoigu and Gerasimov.

After the rebellion, many of them called for Putin to make changes to the military. On Thursday, they were outraged at the hard-line effort to silence Popov, who is widely admired for his competence, and warned it would have a serious impact on front-line morale.

“The conflict between Popov and Gerasimov highlights one main thing: the lack of unity in the Russian Armed Forces,” wrote Rybar, a prominent blogger whose real name is Mikhail Zvinchuk. “The enemy will surely take advantage of this.”

Another blogger, Andrei Zhivov, wrote that Popov’s dismissal would “significantly reduce the morale and combat effectiveness of the army.”

“The president must intervene in this situation,” he continued. “No one else is trusted.”

A Russian official with close ties to senior diplomatic circles, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate situation, said the scandal over Popov’s dismissal was a sign that the turmoil of Prigozhin’s rebellion they extend more and more to the elite.

“They created a Frankenstein’s monster that has gotten out of hand,” he said. Prigozhin “started some kind of process and now it continues.”

A senior Ukrainian official said the publication of Popov’s comments was a sign of “the disintegration of the Russian military.”

“It is unprecedented for an active-duty general to publicly defy orders from the highest command,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “Russia has not faced this kind of event since 1917,” he added, referring to the military uprising that preceded the Russian Revolution.

Prior to his short-lived mutiny, Prigozhin had accused Ministry of Defense leaders of withholding ammunition from his men as Wagner’s mercenary group lost thousands of fighters in the long and bloody battle for Bakhmut.

Russia says Wagner has returned tanks, missile systems, weapons and ammunition

Popov’s criticism also focused on the lack of support for front-line soldiers, namely the lack of anti-battery and artillery reconnaissance stations. He lamented the “massive casualties” of enemy artillery, calling it “the greatest tragedy of modern warfare”.

And he accused the Ministry of Defense of “treason” for dismissing him.

The 58th Combined Arms Army is based in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk in southern Ukraine. On Wednesday, Gurulyov, the Duma deputy and a former commander, reported that Lt. Gen. Oleg Tsokov was recently killed in an attack on the base, making him the highest-ranking Russian military officer to die in the war.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has not confirmed Tsokov’s death.

“Unfortunately, he died heroically, this man deserves enormous respect,” Gurulyov said, speaking on Russian state television’s “60 Minutes.”

Gurulyov’s publication of Popov’s message drew criticism from Andrei Turchak, head of Putin’s United Russia party, in a rare public display of divisions within the party. Turchak accused Gurulyov of creating a “political spectacle”, warning that the army should remain “out of politics”, in comments posted on Telegram.

“The division is spreading within the ruling party,” said the Russian official with diplomatic relations. “This shows that there is no unity in what is happening. Putin cannot stop it.”

The Kremlin’s revelation on Monday that Putin met with Prigozhin and several dozen Wagner commanders five days after the rebellion “shows that something is going on that we don’t understand,” the official continued. “So far, this is beyond our understanding, but everyone understands that something is wrong in our house.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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