MOSCOW — A Russian general in charge of forces fighting in southern Ukraine has been relieved of his duties after speaking out about problems faced by his troops, a move that reflected new fissures in the military command following a brief rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, the commander of the 58th army in the Zaporizhzhia region, which is a focal point in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, said in an audio statement to his troops released Wednesday night that he was dismissed after a meeting with the military brass in what he described as a “treacherous” stab in the back to Russian forces in Ukraine.
Popov said the military leadership was angered by his frank talk about 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 has failed to break through our army’s defenses, but the top commander hit us in the rear, 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 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 the stiff formal style of command common in the Russian military. Russian military bloggers say he’s widely known for avoiding unnecessary losses — unlike many other commanders who were eager to sacrifice their soldiers to report successes.
“I faced a difficult situation with the top leadership when I had to either keep silent and act like a coward, saying what they wanted to hear, or call things by their names,” Popov said. “I didn’t have the right to lie for the sake of you and our fallen comrades.”
Many military bloggers argued that Popov’s dismissal eroded troop morale at a time of relentless Ukrainian attacks. One blogger, Vladislav Shurygin, said it has dealt a “terrible blow to the entire army,” while another, Roman Saponkov, described it as a “monstrous terror attack against the army’s morale.”
In a sign that many in Russian officialdom share Popov’s criticism of the military leadership, Andrei Turchak, the first deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament and head of the main Kremlin party United Russia, strongly backed the general, saying that “the Motherland can be proud of such commanders.”
Andrei Kartapolov, a retired general who heads the defense affairs committee in the lower house, also said the Defense Ministry should deal with the issues raised by Popov.
News of Popov’s dismissal added to the blow that Russian troops received when another senior officer, Lt. Gen. Oleg Tsokov, was killed Tuesday by a Ukrainian missile strike.
Popov’s remarks about the need to rotate his exhausted troops that have been fighting the Ukrainian counteroffensive since early June, reportedly angered General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who shrugged them off as panicky and promptly ordered his dismissal.
Gerasimov was shown meeting with military officers Monday in a video released by the Defense Ministry, the first time he was seen since last month’s abortive rebellion by Prigozhin, who had demanded his ouster. The uproar fueled by Popov’s dismissal could further erode the position of Gerasimov, who has faced broad criticism for his conduct of the fighting in Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov 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 intervention by President Vladimir Putin.
“Such public disputes at the top of the Russian army isn’t a show of force,” he said.
During the June 24 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 Putin in his more than two decades in power and badly dented his authority, even though Prigozhin said the uprising wasn’t aimed against the president but intended to force the ouster of Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Wagner chief was harshly critical of their conduct of how they have conducted the action in Ukraine.
On Monday, the Kremlin confirmed Prigozhin and 34 of his top officers met with Putin on June 29, 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 Putin and said they were ready “to continue to fight for the Motherland.”
Putin has said 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 remain 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.
Speaking in Helsinki on Thursday after a NATO summit, U.S. President Joe Biden said he is not certain about what fate awaits Prigozhin.
“I’m not even sure where he is,” Biden said. “If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate, I’d be keeping an eye on my menu. But all kidding aside ... I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know for certain what the future of Prigozhin is in Russia.”
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.