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Top Russian general missing since Wagner mutiny 'fired' as head of aerospace forces

The news, reported by state media, follows months of speculation about the fate of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was known to have been close to mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin with Russian President Vladimir Putin  in Moscow in 2017.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017.Alexei Druzhinin / AP file

A top Russian general who has been missing from public view since the Wagner mercenary rebellion has been dismissed as head of the country’s aerospace forces, Russian state media reported Wednesday. 

Gen. Sergei Surovikin was dismissed after months of speculation. He had been the deputy commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine but was known to have been close to mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“The ex-Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces of Russia Sergei Surovikin has now been relieved of his post, Colonel General Viktor Afzalov, Chief of the General Staff of the Aerospace Forces, is temporarily acting as Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces,” the Russian state news agency RIA reported, citing a single unnamed source.

The Russian news outlet RBK and Rybar, a popular Telegram channel close to the country’s Defense Ministry, reported Tuesday that Surovikin had been removed from his position. Citing unnamed sources “familiar with personnel changes in the defense ministry,” RBK reported that Surovikin was relieved of his duties because of a “transfer to another job” and is “on a short leave.”

The newspaper Izvestia, known for its pro-Kremlin view, reported what it said was Surovikin’s resignation, citing its own unnamed sources. 

Alexei Venediktov, the former head of the Ekho Moskvy, a prominent independent radio station authorities shut down within days of the Ukraine invasion, was the first to report that Surovikin had been dismissed Tuesday but said he was being “retained by the defense ministry.”

NBC News could not confirm the reports. 

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin or the Defense Ministry. 

Surovikin has not been heard from publicly since Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership this summer. 

No official charges have been filed against Prigozhin, who appears to have been moving around the country freely. But that does not seem to have been the case for Surovikin.

He has not been seen in public since he appeared in a video urging Prigozhin to stand down in the early hours of the mutiny. 

Days after the rebellion, speculation swirled in Russian and foreign media that he had been detained on suspicion of aiding the rebels. Despite months of vitriol directed at Russia’s Defense Ministry, Prigozhin had on numerous occasions praised Surovikin as one of the only effective generals in the Russian army, and the two are considered close.

Reuters and The New York Times both cited U.S. officials in the days after the mutiny saying Surovikin was sympathetic to Prigozhin’s rebellion and may have even had “advance knowledge” of the plans. The Kremlin dismissed the reports as “speculation and gossip” at the time. 

The rumors about Surovikin’s arrest or any role in Prigozhin’s rebellion have remained unconfirmed by the Defense Ministry or the Kremlin since then. His exact whereabouts remain unknown.

Surovikin, 56, earned the nickname “Gen. Armageddon” for his brutal tactics in the war in Syria, in which Russia has played a key part propping the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Surovikin was awarded the “Hero of Russia” title for his “courage and heroism” in Syria, according to his Defense Ministry profile. 

He has commanded Russia’s Aerospace Forces since late 2017. Before that, he was the commander of Russia’s Eastern Military District, according to the ministry. 

Surovikin is widely considered one of the most effective and battle-hardened Russian generals. 

In October, he was appointed as the overall commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine amid growing criticism of Russia’s battlefield failures. 

He oversaw the aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s power grid infrastructure last fall but was forced to withdraw from the key strategic city of Kherson just a month after he was appointed. While many saw it as a defeat, some Kremlin hawks praised him for avoiding unnecessary personnel and equipment losses amid the inevitable liberation of the city by Ukrainian forces. 

Surovikin was replaced in that post by Gen. Valery Gerasimov in January and was made one of Gerasimov’s deputies. 

Afzalov was previously deputy to Surovikin and has been chief of staff of the Aerospace Forces for at least four years, according to British military intelligence.

During Surovikin’s absence from public view, Afzalov was shown on television briefing Gerasimov last month.