A senior Russian general had foreknowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to rebel against the Russian military leadership, according to U.S. officials who were privy to U.S. intelligence on the matter, which has raised questions about the support the mercenary leader had within the highest ranks.
The officials said they are trying to determine whether General Sergei Surovikin, the former top Russian commander in Ukraine, helped plan Mr Prigozhin’s actions last weekend, which posed the most dramatic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin in his 23 years in power.
General Surovikin is a respected military leader who helped bolster defenses across battle lines after Ukraine’s counter-offensive last year, analysts say. He was replaced as top commander in January, but retained influence in directing war operations and remains popular among the troops.
US officials also said there are signs that other Russian generals may have also supported Mr Prigozhin’s attempt to forcibly change the leadership of the Defense Ministry. Current and former US officials said Mr Prigozhin would not have launched his uprising unless he believed others in positions of power would come to his aid.
If General Surovikin was involved in last weekend’s events, it would be the latest sign of the power struggle that has characterized Russia’s military leadership since the beginning of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Putin’s two senior military advisers: Sergei K. Shoigu, the defense minister, and General Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff.
Mr Putin must now decide, officials say, whether he believes General Surovikin helped Mr Prigozhin and how to respond.
On Tuesday, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency said it was dropping criminal charges of “armed mutiny” against Mr Prigozhin and members of his force. But if Putin finds evidence that General Surovikin helped Prigozhin more directly, he will have little choice but to remove him from command, officials and analysts say.
Some former officials say Mr. Putin might decide to keep General Surovikin, if he concludes that he had some knowledge of what Mr. Prigozhin was up to, but did not help him. For now, analysts said, Mr. Putin appears to be planning to push the mutiny solely on Mr. Prigozhin.
“Putin is reluctant to change people,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “But if the secret service puts files on Putin’s desk and if some of the files implicate Surovikin, that could change.”
Senior US officials suggest that an alliance between Gen. Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin could explain why Mr. Prigozhin is still alive, despite capturing a key Russian military center and ordering an armed march on Moscow.
US officials and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. They emphasized that much of what the United States and its allies know is preliminary. US officials have avoided discussing the uprising publicly, fearing to fuel Putin’s narrative that the unrest was orchestrated by the West.
Yet US officials have an interest in releasing information that undermines the position of General Surovikin, whom they consider more competent and ruthless than other members of the command. His removal would undoubtedly benefit Ukraine, whose Western-backed forces are on a new counter-offensive aimed at trying to regain territory taken by Moscow.
The Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
General Surovikin spoke out against the uprising when it went public on Friday, in a video urging Russian troops in Ukraine to hold their positions and not join the uprising.
“I urge you to stop,” General Surovikin said in a message to Telegram. “The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation in our country to deteriorate.”
But a former official called that message akin to “a hostage video.” General Surovikin’s body language suggested he was uncomfortable denouncing a former ally, one who shared his view of the Russian military leadership, the former official said.
There were other signs of divided loyalties in the highest ranks. Another Russian general – Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev – made his own video call, calling any action against the Russian state a “stab in the back of the country and the president.” But hours later, he surfaced in another video, talking to Mr. Prigozhin in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where Wagner fighters seized military facilities.
“There have just been too many weird things that I think suggest there was a conspiracy that we haven’t figured out yet,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in a telephone interview.
“Think how easy it was to take Rostov,” Mr. McFaul said. “There are armed guards all over Russia and suddenly no one is around to do anything?”
Independent experts and US and allied officials said Mr Prigozhin appeared to believe large parts of the Russian army would side with him if his convoy made its way to Moscow.
Former officials said General Surovikin was not in favor of pushing Mr Putin out of power, but it seems he agreed with Mr Prigozhin that Mr Shoigu and General Gerasimov should be relieved of their duties.
“Surovikin is a decorated general with a complex history,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “It is said that he is respected and considered competent by the soldiers.”
General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin talked to both Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov about the tactics used in Ukraine. While the overall performance of the Russian military in the war has been widely derided as disappointing, analysts have credited General Surovikin and Mr. Prigozhin for Russia’s few successes.
In General Surovikin’s case, that limited success was the professionally managed withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, where they had been nearly surrounded and cut off from supplies last fall. Based on intercepted communications, US officials concluded that a frustrated General Surovikin represented a hardline of generals who wanted to use the harshest tactics against Ukrainians.
Similarly, Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries achieved some success in taking the eastern city of Bakhmut after a nine-month battle in which, by Mr. Prigozhin’s own count, about 20,000 Wagner troops were killed. US officials and military analysts say tens of thousands of troops died in the battle for Bakhmut, including Wagner soldiers who were former convicts with little training before being sent to war. Mr. Prigozhin often complained that senior Russian defense and military officials were not supplying his troops with sufficient weapons.
Russia’s entire military campaign in Ukraine was marked by musical chairs of changing generals. Last fall, when General Surovikin was put in charge of the Russian military’s effort in Ukraine, he was the second man to be given the job, replacing a general who had lasted barely a month. General Surovikin didn’t last long, but performed much better during his weeks at the helm.
Nevertheless, General Surovikin was demoted in January and Mr. Putin turned over direct command of the war to General Gerasimov, who promised to put Russian forces back on the offensive. According to military and Russian analysts, General Surovikin’s demotion was widely regarded as a blow to Mr. Prigozhin.