I originally started writing this article on Wednesday morning with the news that General Sergey Surovikin had been removed from his position as commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), while also having still been missing from the public eye since the Wagner coup in June. As I will explain, Surovikin had close ties with Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, so my thought was that his removal may have been a sign to something to come. Yet, as I started writing the headline article, news broke of Prigozhin’s death, which made me have to reproach how I structure this article.
Who is Surovikin?
Sergey Surovikin is a career Russian serviceman, having previously served in numerous conflicts over the past several decades. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Surovikin served in a Spetsnaz unit and by 1991, he was arrested for taking part in the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt, but was pardoned by President Boris Yeltsin, who said he was only following orders. Despite his involvement, Surovikin was promoted and went on to command the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division during the Second Chechen War in 2004.
In 2017, Surovikin was placed as the commanding officer of Russian military forces in Syria and commander of the VKS, suceeding Viktor Bondarev. During this time, Surovikin was dubbed “General Armageddon” by western media for his ordering of large scale airstrike campaigns against rebel forces in Syria that have been criticized as being indestrimate and leading to large amounts of civilian casualties. It is also believed that Surovikin fostered a close relationship with Prigozhin at this time, as Wagner PMCs were carrying out operation in the country under his supervision.
In June 2022, it was revealed that he became the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces in the Southern Ukraine campaign. On 8 October, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine, succeeding Colonel General Gennady Zhidko. He was reportedly promoted to this position due to the Russian failures during the Ukrainian counter-offensives, which began at the end of August 2022. On 18 October, Surovikin said, “The situation in the area of the ‘Special Military Operation’ can be described as tense.”
However, Surovikin had been cited as overly critical of his superiors, including Gerasimov, who eventually replaced him in January 2023 as the battles of Soledar and Bakhmut were still underway. At that point, Surovikin was essentially demoted back to his original position of solely leading the VKS.
As stated above, Surovikin was believed to have had a close relationship with Prigozhin. As the mutiny kicked off in late June, Surovikin appeared in a Telegram video pleading with Prigozhin to stop his advance on Moscow, stating that “I appeal to the leadership, commanders and fighters of PMC Wagner: Together with you, we walked a difficult path. Together with you, we fought, we took risks, we took losses, but overcome together. We are of the same blood. We are warriors.”
Russian General Sergey Surovikin appealed to the commanders of Wagner PMC and urged them to obey the orders of the President of the Russian Federation.
"I urge you to stop, the enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to worsen in our country – you can’t give… pic.twitter.com/dUuIPNanP7
— NOELREPORTS ?? ?? (@NOELreports) June 23, 2023
“I call on you to stop… We shouldn’t play into the enemy’s hand in this difficult time for the country. Stop the columns, and return them to their permanent positions and places of concentration,” he added.
The video has, so far, been the last time Surovikin has been seen or heard from publicly.
Within days, there were reports by independent Russian media and milbloggers that Surovikin had been arrested in connection to the mutiny. The reports came as the NYT, citing US officials, claimed that Surovikin had advanced knowledge of the mutiny and supported it.
Surovikin’s disappearance, in the wake of a major political and security upheaval, did not come as much of a surprise, however, the timing of his removal was. On August 22, Russia announced that he was being replaced by Viktor Afzalov to command the VKS. It would be the very next day that Prigozhin’s private business jet was downed over Tver, Russia, after it departed Moscow, killing him and his second in command Dmitry Utkin, as well as other Wagner command staff.
It became evident quite quickly that their aircraft was downed by an explosion, with Wagner-aligned media and local reports have suggest that anti-aircraft systems fired on the aircraft. Western intelligence, however, have suggested the aircraft may have been downed by an explosive device placed on or inside the aircraft.
As Putin once said, the only thing he cannot forgive is betrayal. For Surovikin, he was roped into the Wagner purge that was carried out under the guise of safety guarantees. The extent of his involvement, let alone support, of the Wagner mutiny still remains unknown, but his removal from leadership seemed to be the first step in killing Prigozhin.
— Faytuks News ? (@Faytuks) August 23, 2023
The opportunity was prime as Wagner forces were stretched thin across Belarus, where they were largely disarmed, and several African countries, leaving them unable to effectively respond to the killing even if they wanted to.
One of the largest questions being posted now is what is the future of Wagner. Without Prigozhin or Utkin, the group has been left without leadership while under a much greater threat of reprisal from the Kremlin. Wagner still has a significant amount of contracts going on in Central and West Africa, as well as speculated backing of the Niger junta. So will the group continue to operate on its own or will they be replaced by the several other PMC organizations propped up by Russian state enterprises in the wake of the mutiny?