Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to an armed mutiny a month ago has been to purge frontline commanders he considers disloyal rather than sack his Defense Ministry leaders blamed for Ukraine war failures that provoked the rebellion. The Kremlin leader’s revenge campaign has prioritized the ouster of the most effective battlefield leaders for accusing the top Russian military brass of corruption and incompetence and, by extension, the commander-in-chief himself—Putin.
Wagner Group mercenary founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, who brazenly led the short-lived June 24 rebellion, has not been verifiably seen or heard from since he halted his armored column just 120 miles from the Kremlin gates. Statements have been circulated in Prigozhin’s name, including a vow not to return his Wagner fighters to the Ukraine war until the aggression no longer brings “shame” upon Russia.
Neither has there been a post-mutiny sighting of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former commander of Russian forces in the beleaguered Ukraine invasion with a reputation for ruthless attacks on civilians. Surovikin, a veteran of Russian interventions in the Middle East, is rumored to have been supportive of Prigozhin’s drive to take out Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Shoigu and Gerasimov were absent from pro-Kremlin media coverage in the mutiny’s aftermath for more than two weeks, then suddenly returned to center stage in a demonstration by Putin that it pays to have his back. But it remains a mystery why Putin wants to show his tuned-out population that he would rather shoot the messengers than heed their calls for replacing Shoigu and Gerasimov if he wants a long-shot chance to turn around the failed objective of conquering Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, Putin fired Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Air Defenses, considered among the most capable units fighting in Ukraine. His offense was speaking out about the deplorable conditions for the rank and file under his command: heavy casualties, ammunition shortages and failure to rotate fresh troops for the beleaguered recruits struggling to hold the lines while being “stabbed in the back” by Moscow.
“Ukraine’s forces could not break through our army from the front, but our senior commander hit us from the rear,” Popov accused the Kremlin in a taped message posted online.
Russian media last week reported the arrest of army veteran and former intelligence officer Igor Girkin, who led Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in Putin’s 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea. Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov or “Shooter” in English, had called on Putin three days earlier to resign over the bungled 17-month-old full-scale invasion of Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands on both sides. The stalled Russian offensive now faces an invigorated Ukrainian counteroffensive aimed at taking back Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea.
Girkin was taken to a Moscow jail for a two-month pretrial detention ahead of charges of “public incitement of extremist activity,” The Moscow Times reported Friday.
Like Putin, Girkin faces an arrest warrant by a U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. The separatist commander was tried in absentia and sentenced to life in prison in November for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 nine years ago, presumably having mistaken the commercial plane flying an authorized international transit route for a Ukrainian military transport. All 298 people on board the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were killed in the July 17, 2014, shootdown that the court ultimately blamed on Russia.
Punishing the Russian invasion’s more effective commanders for speaking truth to power is unlikely to reverse the damage Prigozhin’s mutiny inflicted on Putin’s posture as the strongest Russian leader since Peter the Great. Russia’s economy is on a trajectory for severe decline by next year. Domestic indifference to his unprovoked war has been shaken by the signs of political and military fractures. The country’s standing in the world has been drastically damaged by the war’s spillover effects on the rest of the world in spurring inflation and exacerbating a food shortage in the Third World.
Cracking down on previously decorated Russian nationalist warriors, like Girkin and Popov, risks alienating other ardent nationalist leaders and pro-war bloggers who see the moves as further damaging Putin’s objective of conquering more Ukrainian territory.
Putin’s actions on the international stage have compounded the self-inflicted wounds on the domestic security front. His scuttling of a U.N.-brokered deal to safeguard grain shipments from Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea ports to hungry developing countries spurred rare criticism from Russia’s most important ally, China. It also led to a snub by most African countries invited to a summit in St. Petersburg this week. Putin hoped to court moral support from a region that has so far abstained in U.N. votes to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
China’s deputy U.N. representative, Geng Shuang, told the Security Council that all parties to the grain deal needed to resolve their disputes and resume the export of grain and fertilizer “in the interest of safeguarding international food security, and especially in the interest of alleviating the food crisis in developing countries.”
Beijing’s consulate in Odesa suffered damage when one of the missiles Russia fired on the Black Sea port in an indiscriminate weeklong attack struck near the consulate building, shattering windows.
Only 16 African national leaders invited to the second Africa-Russia summit RSVP’d as attending the July 27 gathering compared with 43 heads of state and government who took part in the first Kremlin Africa forum in 2019. The Washington Post called the response “a striking disappointment for the Kremlin despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts in Africa and a sign of dismay in African nations about a war that has raised food and fuel prices, hurting vulnerable populations.”
Putin was recently forced to inform the South African government hosting next month’s summit of the BRICS alliance that he would not be attending. An outstanding arrest warrant on war crimes issued for Putin in March by the International Criminal Court compels signatories to the U.N. court, which includes South Africa, to arrest Putin should he enter its territory. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov planned to represent his country aside the leaders of a bloc uniting Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Adding to the international censure and isolation of Russia, the Kremlin on Wednesday received a warning from the International Atomic Energy Agency that anti-personnel mines around the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant violate safety procedures. Putin’s threats to retaliate for Ukrainian attacks on Russian forces with “whatever means necessary” have heightened fears he could order the destruction of Europe’s largest nuclear plant on Ukraine’s Dnipro River.
Ukraine and anti-war forces within Russia have succeeded in waging drone attacks in Moscow and on Russian cities close to the Ukraine border, piercing Russian civilians’ complacent sense of security in being far from the war zones.
Putin’s steadily eroding control of the costly war he has waged against a defiant neighbor may not push him to recalibrate or rethink the original objective of subsuming Ukraine into a Greater Russia, analysts of the dire situation point out. In a commentary published in Foreign Affairs this week, King’s College Professor Emeritus of War Studies Lawrence Freedman laid out a convincing argument for why Putin will carry on his lost cause indefinitely, with the primary motivation that to admit defeat or compromise would lead to his ouster.
While Ukraine’s counteroffensive has made only modest gains so far, President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials in Kyiv have assured their impatient Western allies that the strategy for pushing Russians out of occupied Ukrainian territory is a slow but methodical undertaking.
The defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty have made symbolic strikes on key Crimean ammunition and fuel depots, aiming to diminish supplies for Russian ground troops and eventually sever their hold on the sole land bridge to Crimea.
A second strike by Ukraine forces last week on the 12-mile-long bridge over the Kerch Strait linking Russia to Crimea did minor damage to the structure that was a pet project of Putin’s after the illegal 2014 annexation of the peninsula. But it was a reminder to the Kremlin and the rest of the world that Putin’s shrinking war spoils are vulnerable to a Ukrainian defense force bolstered by state-of-the-art armaments from Kyiv’s NATO allies and the motivation to protect their democracy and independence.