Holding the position of Russian General has been a somewhat risky endeavor ever since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but in recent weeks the dangers of the job and the threats associated with it appear to have escalated.
The most common cause of their demise so far has been a traditional battlefield death at the hands of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Estimates of the number killed in this manner range from 10 to around 20 which, given generals tend to direct things at a relatively safe distance from the front lines, is an extraordinary proportion not seen since the days of World War II.
What’s changed in recent weeks?
In one sense nothing – Russia’s generals are still being taken out of action at a steady rate.
What has changed, is the manner in which this is happening. Take General Surovikin, for example, who has for all intents and purposes simply disappeared.
Who is General Surovikin?
Nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics, Sergei Surovikin has been one of the leading commanders of Russia's military offensive in Ukraine.
The 56-year-old head of Russia's aerospace forces is also a veteran of the second Chechen war and was a top commander behind Russia's intervention in Syria. He is also nicknamed the “Syrian butcher.”
The beginning of Surovikin’s tenure as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine was marked two days after his nomination by the first of what would become hundreds of mass-missile attacks on civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine.
Unfortunately for Surovikin, it failed to diminish Ukrainian resistance and he was replaced in the job after just three months.
Where is Surovikin now?
That’s a very good question to which no one appears to have a good answer.
Surovikin is believed to be close to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has praised him in public as Russia's most competent military commander.
"Surovikin is a legendary person, he was born to faithfully serve the Motherland," Prigozhin said of Surovikin in October 2022.
Surovikin has disappeared from public view since Wagner's short-lived mutiny sent shock waves across Russia last month.
He was last seen when he urged the Wagner chief to call off his men in a highly unusual video appeal in which, unshaven and scowling, he urged Prigozhin to stop.
The Kremlin has dismissed the NYT report but uncertainty surrounding the general's fate persists.
This week Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower house, said that Surovikin is "resting now, he is not available at the moment."
"Surovikin is resting now" - Andrey Kartapolov, Russian MP, explained Army General Sergei Surovikin's disappearance from media space.— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) July 12, 2023
Surovikin has not appeared in public since Prigozhin's mutiny. pic.twitter.com/L8kBhn7HYP
Very intriguing. What about other generals?
Next up is General Popov, proof that even doing your job well isn’t protection from the Kremlin‘s wrath.
Popov is popular with Russian troops and considered one of Moscow’s most competent field officers, but made the mistake of drawing the military leadership's attention to numerous problems in the army.
Not one to take criticism well and instead of dealing with the issues raised, Russia’s military leadership fired him instead.
"I had no right to lie," Popov said in an audio recording, pointing to "the mass deaths and injuries" among Russian soldiers in Ukraine and the absence of artillery reconnaissance stations.
He also said Russia's top commanders betrayed the troops.
"We were hit from the rear by our senior commander, treacherously and vilely decapitating the army at the most difficult and tense moment," the 48-year-old said, without naming any names.
Maj Gen Ivan Popov, the now ex-commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, has been making waves this week as a Prigozhin Lite/3.0 sort of story. Here’s what Popov told his men in the audio recording published by an apparently supportive State Duma deputy. pic.twitter.com/YoYpcPIsPz— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) July 13, 2023
Why is Russia sacking competent generals?
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 from 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.
Russia's influential Rybar Telegram channel, which is followed by 1.2 million subscribers, said that Popov enjoys huge support among soldiers but anyone speaking out about problems – especially after the Wagner rebellion – is considered an "enemy."
"The conflict between Popov and Gerasimov highlights the main thing: the lack of unity in the Russian armed forces," said the account.
Disappearances and sackings – any other fates I need to know about?
Russian generals are still being take out in the more… traditional manner.
Our third general is Lieutenant General Oleg Yuryevich Tsokov, who was reportedly killed this week by a Ukrainian strike on a hotel in the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine.
While the defence ministry in Moscow has remained silent, Russian state television and pro-Kremlin military bloggers say that the 51-year-old deputy commander of the Southern Military District was killed as a result of a Kyiv attack using UK-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Reports of Tsokov's death sparked a new wave of criticism. “It is sad to say it, but the quality of enemy intelligence is superior to ours,” remarked one Telegram channel, Zapiski Veterana (Notes of a Veteran).
The Rybar Telegram account criticised the top brass in Moscow over perceived inaction, saying the West helped Ukraine identify important Russian targets using satellites in space and “informers on the ground.”
“Everyone knows about it, everyone is aware, but no measures are being taken,” said Rybar.
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