A Russian general in charge of forces fighting in southern Ukraine has been relieved of his duties after speaking out about the problems faced by his troops in a move that reflected new fissures in the Russian military command following a brief rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, the commander of the 58th Army fighting in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, which is a focal point in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, said in an audio statement to his troops released late Wednesday that he was dismissed after a meeting with the top military brass.
Popov said that the military leadership was angered by his frank talk about the challenges faced by his forces, particularly the shortage of radars tracking enemy artillery, which resulted in massive Russian casualties.
“The top officers apparently saw me as a source of threat and rapidly issued an order to get rid of me, which was signed by the defense minister in just one day,” he said. “The Ukrainian military couldn’t penetrate our army’s defenses, but the top commander hit us in the back, treacherously and cowardly beheading the army at this most difficult moment.”
Popov, who uses the call name, Spartacus, addressed his troops as “my gladiators” in the audio message released by retired Gen. Andrei Gurulev, who commanded the 58th Army in the past and currently serves as a lawmaker. The 58th Army consists of several divisions and smaller units.
The 48-year-old Popov, who has risen from a platoon commander to lead a large group of forces, has encouraged his soldiers to come directly to him with any problems — an easygoing approach that contrasted sharply with a stiff formal style of command common for the Russian military. Military bloggers say he’s widely known for doing his best to avoid unnecessary losses — unlike many other commanders who were eager to sacrifice their soldiers to report successes.
In a sign that many in Russian officialdom share Popov’s criticism of the top military brass, Andrei Turchak, the first deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament who heads the main Kremlin party United Russia, strongly backed the general, saying that “the Motherland can be proud of such commanders.”
The news about Popov’s dismissal came a day after another top officer leading Russian forces facing the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, Lt. Gen. Oleg Tsokov, was killed by a Ukrainian missile strike. Gurulev said that Tsokov died when the Ukrainian military struck the city of Berdyansk on Tuesday with U.K.-supplied Storm Shadow missiles.
Russia’s Defense Ministry hasn’t reported Tsokov’s death.
Russian military bloggers said that Popov’s remarks, in which he also spoke about the need to rotate his troops, which have been fighting to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive since early June, angered General Staff Chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who promptly ordered his dismissal.
Gerasimov was shown meeting with military officers in a video released by the Defense Ministry on Monday, the first time he was seen since last month’s abortive rebellion by Prigozhin, who demanded his ouster.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, noted that Popov’s statement echoed criticism of the top brass by Prigozhin. However, he added that the general’s statement wasn’t a rebellion, but instead a call for Putin’s help.
“Such public disputes at the top of the Russian army isn’t a show of force,” he said.
During the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours, mercenaries from Prigozhin’s Wagner Group quickly swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot before driving to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow.
Prigozhin called his mercenaries back to their camps after striking a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for him and his mercenaries and permission to move to Belarus.
The rebellion represented the biggest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power and badly dented his authority, even though Prigozhin said that the uprising wasn’t aimed against the president but intended to force the ouster of Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose handling of the action in Ukraine he has criticized.
On Monday, the Kremlin confirmed that Prigozhin and 34 of his top officers met with Putin on June 29, five days after the rebellion, a startling announcement that raised new questions about the terms of the deal with Wagner. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wagner’s commanders pledged loyalty to the president and said they were ready “to continue to fight for the Motherland.”
Putin has said that Wagner troops had to choose whether to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, move to Belarus or retire from service. While details of the deal with Prigozhin have remained murky, uncertainty also has surrounded the fate of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian group of forces fighting in Ukraine who reportedly had been detained for questioning about his ties to Prigozhin.
The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that mercenaries of the Wagner Group were completing the handover of their weapons to the Russian military, part of the Kremlin’s efforts to defuse the threat it posed.
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