August 23, 2023 - 6:00pm

Russian media has reported General Sergei Surovikin’s dismissal as commander-in-chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces, to be replaced by Colonel-General Viktor Afzalov as acting head. Surovikin’s removal is hardly surprising — he has not been seen in public since a 23rd June video in which he urged Wagner insurrectionists to “lay down arms” and obey the President. On Sunday, a blog close to Russia’s security forces claimed that Surovikin was “under a kind of house arrest”, unable to leave his home but permitted visits by subordinates.

Dubbed “General Armageddon” for his brutal military tactics in Chechnya and Syria, Surovikin was appointed commander of Russian forces in Ukraine in October, a position he held until his January demotion in favour of General Valery Gerasimov. Despite the loss of status, Surovikin enjoyed the rare distinction of being a Russian general who met with praise from Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin

In stark contrast to the criticism he frequently levelled at Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin singled out Surovikin as a “legendary figure”, the only “reasonable” general and “the only man with the star of an army general who knows how to fight”. The warmth between them was reflected by Surovikin’s appointment in May to liaise between Wagner forces and the Russian military. 

It is a connection he is likely now regretting. In June, Russian Defence Ministry sources claimed Surovikin had been arrested for siding with Prigozhin’s forces in the revolt, while US intelligence officials reported that the general may have had prior knowledge of the Wagner uprising and potentially even aided it, explaining the military’s lacklustre response at the time. 

Surovikin’s formal dismissal will most likely not have any significant impact on Russia’s battlefield performance in Ukraine, given that he has not been in command since June. He may even receive another post at a future juncture — this month, Russian MP and ex-lieutenant general Viktor Sobolev proposed that Surovikin’s removal might not prevent him being “useful in the army” in future, assuming he “does not have any serious violations”. A return to prominence is possible, then, depending on Vladimir Putin’s caprices. 

While Surovikin has evidently not been attending to his duties for months, his official dismissal comes at a significant moment, providing another sign of Putin formally consolidating his power in the aftermath of the Wagner revolt and publicly ostracising figures associated with the rebellion. 

At the weekend, the Kremlin announced that Russia’s President had met military officials in Rostov-on-Don. The trip constituted Putin’s public return to a city whose population heartily embraced his former caterer and latter-day insurrectionist only months ago. The Kremlin also noted that Putin listened to reports from Gerasimov, a demonstration that the President is keeping him in position and so has not given in to any of Prigozhin’s calls for the military chief’s removal. 

For his part, Prigozhin this week posted a video suggesting he is far from Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Wagner’s current focus trained on Africa. This could be part of an attempt to become self-sufficient — the British Ministry of Defence recently noted that Wagner may be suffering from financial difficulties after being deprived of state funds. 

While Surovikin’s fall from grace has been clear since June, the announcement of his dismissal provides further evidence of the President now formally asserting his authority, after it was called into question so dramatically during June’s Wagner revolt. There is no room for doubts over loyalty in Putin’s Kremlin.