Russian state media reported on Wednesday that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, previously a commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine and associated with a leader of a short-lived armed uprising, has been removed from his position as the head of the air force. This decision comes after several weeks of uncertainty surrounding his status.
Surovikin has not been seen in public since June 23-24, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, sent his men to march toward Moscow. In a video released during the uprising, Surovikin — who was believed to have close ties to Prigozhin — had urged him to pull the mercenaries back.
The Wagner uprising posed the most serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule and reports circulated that Surovikin had known about it in advance. Prigozhin called off the rebellion short of reaching Moscow after he said he wanted to avoid bloodshed.
Surovikin’s absence has been one of several enduring mysteries surrounding the rebellion. During his absence, Russian media have speculated about Surovikin’s whereabouts, with some claiming he had been detained, but his daughter told the Russian social media channel Baza in late June that her father had not been arrested.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, citing an anonymous source, reported that Surovikin has been replaced as commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces by Col. Gen. Viktor Afzalov, who heads the main staff of the air force.
The agency frequently represents the official position of the Kremlin through reports citing anonymous officials in Russia’s defense and security establishment.
The Russian government has not commented on the report, and The Associated Press was not able to confirm it independently.
The Russian daily newspaper RBC reported that Surovikin is being transferred to a new job and is now on vacation.
Alexei Venediktov, the former head of the closed radio station Ekho Moskvy, and Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of a Putin-linked politician, both wrote on social media Tuesday that Surovikin had been dismissed.
Sobchak said Surovikin was removed from his post Aug. 18, “by a closed decree. The family still has no contact with him.”
Surovikin was dubbed “General Armageddon” for his brutal military campaign in Syria and led Russia’s operations in Ukraine between October 2022 and January 2023. Under his command, Russian forces unleashed regular missile barrages on Ukrainian cities, significantly damaging civilian infrastructure and disrupting heating, electricity and water supplies.
Both Surovikin and Prigozhin were both active in Syria, where Russian forces have fought to shore up President Bashar Assad’s government since 2015.
Surovikin was replaced as commander in Ukraine by Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov following Russia’s withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson amid a swift counteroffensive by Kyiv’s troops, but the air force general continued to serve under Gerasimov as a deputy commander.
Prigozhin had spoken positively of Surovikin while criticizing Russia’s military brass, and suggested he should be appointed General Staff chief to replace Gerasimov.
While the reports circulated about actions against Surovikin, Prigozhin, appears to be still in charge of the mercenary group, which won a key battle to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this year. Prigozhin said he launched the rebellion to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other military leaders who he accused of mismanaging the war in Ukraine.
Shortly after the rebellion, the Kremlin confirmed Putin had a three-hour meeting with Prigozhin and Wagner commanders shortly before they apparently agreed to depart for exile in Belarus. In July, Prigozhin was seen on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, and this week he posted his first video address since the mutiny, saying he was seeking “bogatyrs” — courageous and strong men — to work for Wagner in Africa.