One is known as “General Armageddon,” the other as “Putin’s chef.” Both have a checkered past and a reputation for brutality. One launched the insurrection, the other reportedly knew about it in advance. And right now, both are nowhere to be found.
The commander of the Russian air force Sergey Surovikin and the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin have not been seen in public in days as questions swirl about the role Surovikin may have played in Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny.
Kremlin has remained silent on the topic, embarking instead on an aggressive campaign to reassert the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Here’s what we know about the two men in the spotlight.
Why is everyone talking about Surovikin?
Surovikin has been the subject of intense speculation over his role in the mutiny after the New York Times reported on Wednesday that the general “had advance knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to rebel against Russia’s military leadership.” The paper cited US officials who it said were briefed on US intelligence.
Surovikin released a video last Friday, just as the rebellion was starting, appealing to Prigozhin to halt the mutiny soon after it began. The video message made it clear he sided with Putin. But the footage raised more questions than answers about Surovikin’s whereabouts and his state of mind – he appeared unshaven and with a halting delivery, as if reading from a script.
Asked about the New York Times story, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “There will be now a lot of speculation and rumors surrounding these events. I believe this is just another example of it.
On Wednesday, the Russian-language version of the independent Moscow Times cited two anonymous defense sources as saying that Surovikin had been arrested in relation to the failed mutiny. CNN has been unable to independently verify that claim.
A popular blogger going by the name Rybar noted on Wednesday that “Surovikin has not been seen since Saturday” and said nobody knew for certain where he was. “There is a version that he is under interrogation,” he added.
A well-known Russian journalist Alexey Venediktov – former editor of the now-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station – also claimed Wednesday that Surovikin had not been in contact with his family for three days.
But other Russian commentators suggested the general was not in custody. A former Russian member of Parliament Sergey Markov said on Telegram that Surovikin had attended a meeting in Rostov on Thursday, but did not say how he knew this.
“The rumors about the arrest of Surovikin are dispersing the topic of rebellion in order to promote political instability in Russia,” he said.
Adding further to the speculation, Russian Telegram channel Baza has posted what it says is a brief interview with Surovikin’s daughter, in which she claimed to be in contact with her father and insists that he has not been detained. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the recording. The commander of the Russian air force has not been seen in public since overnight on Friday when he issued the video.
And what about Prigozhin? The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Western officials believe Prigozhin planned to capture Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top army general Valery Gerasimov. When asked about the report, two European security sources told CNN that while it was likely Prigozhin would have expressed a desire to capture Russian military leaders, there was no assessment as to whether he had a credible plan to do so.
Prigozhin was last spotted leaving the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, after abruptly calling off his troops’ march on Moscow.
He released an audio message Monday, explaining his decision to turn his troops back. The Kremlin and the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Saturday that Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for Belarus.
Lukashenko said he brokered a deal that would see Prigozhin exiled in Belarus without facing criminal charges. According to Lukashenko, the Wagner chief arrived in Belarus Tuesday. While there are no videos or photos showing Prigozhin in Belarus, satellite imagery of an airbase outside Minsk showed two planes linked to Prigozhin landed there on Tuesday morning.
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