Ukraine’s campaign to decapitate Kremlin military command and control structures just got a boost with the sacking of a senior Russian general popular with the troops and considered one of Moscow’s most competent field officers, news reports on Thursday July 13 have confirmed.
Major General Ivan Popov posted a recording on his personal Telegram channel on Wednesday, July 12 that said he had been relieved of command of Russia’s 58th Army of the Southern Military District on Tuesday, following a confrontation between himself and senior military leadership after he said he had complained his troops were receiving insufficient central government support.
He asserted in the post that Ukrainian artillery, equipped with modern Western-supplied weapons, was operating with near impunity due to a lack of Russian army counter-battery capability which was resulting in massive casualties that the senior military command was neither reporting to the Kremlin nor taking steps to redress.
Popov said he was sacked one day after raising the issue of “the difficult situation” to “senior leadership.” Russian media widely reported that Popov was referring to the Chief of the General Staff, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, and Russia’s Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu.
Shoigu and Gerasimov are longtime appointees and close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Accusations that the General Staff and Defense Ministry leadership frequently conceal bad news relating to Putin’s war in Ukraine are common even on pro-Russian social media. Kremlin-controlled media platforms maintain Putin is fully informed and in control of the situation at the front and that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, still called the “Special Military Operation” on Russian TV, is proceeding according to plan.
Popov’s voice message published on his personal, limited access Telegram channel did not identify Gerasimov and Shoigu by name but, by its language, left absolutely no doubt that he believed he had been sacked as direct retaliation for confronting the national military leadership with problems faced by frontline units. Russia’s soldiers are fighting bravely but are outgunned, he said.
“My dear gladiators. I have been suspended from duty and await my military fate… The situation was difficult for the senior commanders when it was necessary to keep silent or be cowardly. I had no right to lie in the name of all my friends who died in combat, and therefore, I outlined all the problems in the army in terms of combat work and provision. I focused on the most important problem - the absence of counter-battery warfare, the lack of artillery reconnaissance, and our brothers' mass deaths and injuries from the enemy's artillery,” Popov said.
Russian parliamentarian Andrei Gurulyov, a retired general and himself a former commander of the 58th Army, made Popov’s recording public. Popov took over command of the 58th Army, Russia’s primary conventional force deployed to the southern front in its war against Ukraine, in Oct. 2022, following the sacking of his predecessor, Colonel General Aleksandr Lyapin, who had reportedly been held responsible for humiliating defeats suffered by troops under his command following a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Popov, 48, according to Russian military news reports is popular with troops for focusing on individual soldier needs and his demand for high standards of ethics and professionalism from officers under his command. His personal call sign is, reportedly, “Spartak” (Spartacus).
News of Popov’s sacking came hard on the heels of confirmation of reports that a Ukrainian July 11 long-range strike had killed Popov’s probable immediate boss, Lieutenant General Oleg Toskov, after a salvo of Anglo-French Storm Shadow precision-guided cruise missiles leveled a hotel which served as a Russian command center near the Azov Sea port city of Berdyansk. Toskov had been vice commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, the parent formation of the 58th Army.
Pro-Russian military bloggers on Thursday reported and commented on Popov’s declaration in detail, calling him a skilled fighting man who put his troops’ needs first.
A typical response came from the Russian war blogger and combat correspondent, Vladimir Rogov who wrote: “Popov has colossal support from the troops. Soldiers on the front line were severely demoralized by the news that the ‘straight-talking,’ ‘accessible,’ and honest Popov was removed. Yes, he may have had his faults. But against the background of [other] commanders, who laid down the lives of hundreds of soldiers for the sake of another “Hero Star” medal, or glory of liberating a tiny village, Popov clearly looks good in comparison.”
Popov’s declaration came less than three weeks after Yevgeney Prigozhin, commander of the 20,000-man mercenary Wagner Group, led an armed incursion into south Russia, which Prigozhin said, was a bid to bypass Shoigu and Gerasimov and inform Putin of the war situation directly. Wagner columns captured two major cities and advanced to less than 300 kilometers from Moscow, during which at least thirteen Russian servicemen died, before the Kremlin hammered out a withdrawal deal with Prigozhin. Russian state media later called the mutiny an internal military conflict resolved by Putin’s negotiating skill.
Ultra-Russian patriot and terrorist Igor Strelkov predicted that Popov’s now-public dismissal combined with his popularity with troops could lead to a new march on Moscow. The trigger, most likely, would be a major battlefield defeat of the Russian army, he said.
“A retired commander's appeal to the public is [in the regular army] a nonsense, a scandal, a most dangerous precedent. Almost a mutiny. All the more so because this time, it was created not by some criminal, who by the will of fortune made his way ‘from dirt to princes,’ but by a regular army general … Only a new major military defeat separates us from a new ‘march on Moscow’, performed by the regular army,” Strelkov said in part.
Official Russian state media reaction to General Popov’s declaration was, by midday on July 13, almost non-existent. An exception beings Margarita Simonyan, longtime Putin supporter and head of the Russian state propaganda platform RT (formerly Russia Today).
“The appeal of General Popov was non-public and posted in private chats of the commanders and soldiers of the 58th Army. The fact that ‘deputy’ Gurulyov somehow got it and made a political show out of it, let that remain on his conscience. As well as his other statements and comments, Ivan's [Popov’s] conscience is clear. The Motherland can be proud of such commanders. The army was and remains out of politics,” Simonyan wrote on her personal blog page.
Popov’s declaration, made some 48 hours before Simonyan’s attempt to spin it, nevertheless clearly opened the door on the possibility of his further cooperation with opponents of top military leaders in the Kremlin who, he said, are negligent and traitors.
“Our army could not be penetrated from the front by Ukraine's armed forces, but our senior chief stabbed us in the back. [They] treacherously and despicably decapitated our army at the most difficult moment … I'm staying in touch with everyone 24/7," Popov said.
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