Some members of the Russian elite, terrified at how close Prigozhin’s fighters got to Moscow and to setting off a civil war, raced to show their loyalty to President Vladimir Putin by demonstrating their usual supine posture to the Russian leader.
But questions swirled about whether Prigozhin had support from the upper reaches of Russia’s military or security structures, and the probes were expected to focus on that, deepening the paranoia about treachery within Putin’s regime.
Among those under investigation, according to Russian media and members of the elite, was Gen. Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian aerospace forces, who had good relations with the Wagner boss, and reportedly had intervened to sort out Prigozhin’s demands for ammunition after complaints that his fighters were poorly supplied.
Surovikin’s daughter, Veronika Surovikina, on Thursday dismissed news reports that he had been arrested, telling Baza, a Telegram channel linked to Russian law enforcement, that he was at work in his office. One Russian Telegram channel reported that Surovikin appeared on Thursday at a military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don but reports on his whereabouts could not be confirmed.
Amid a blizzard of rumors that Surovikin had been out of contact since Saturday when he recorded a video urging Prigozhin to halt the rebellion, his daughter said she was in contact with him and “nothing happened to him.”
Surovikina told Baza that her father was often not in the public eye. “When did he make daily appearances in the media? He never used to make daily public statements,” Surovikina told Baza. “As far as I understand, everything is going the way it usually goes. Everyone is at their workplaces. Everything is fine.”
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Analysts and members of the elite said the Kremlin needed answers on how the situation had spun out of control, particularly given that some Russian authorities knew about Prigozhin’s plans beforehand, as claimed by the head of the Russian National Guard Viktor Zolotov in comments to journalists on Tuesday.
“Perhaps it was only not expected by Putin,” one Moscow business executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“So this is the question: why and who is responsible,” said Konstantin Remchukov, editor in chief and CEO of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, who was among a group of newspaper editors who met with Putin on Tuesday. “Who said, ‘No, don’t raise criminal accusations?’” Remchukov said, echoing widespread uncertainty about why insurrection charges against Prigozhin were dropped.
“Now they’re going to detect them,” Remchukov, said, describing his understanding that a sweeping investigation was underway to establish why the rebellion was not prevented. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, like other media outlets, remains open at the Kremlin’s whim.
“Definitely there will be questions to everyone in this vertical of military and special service people — who cooperated with Prigozhin, were confronted with Prigozhin, or looked after Prigozhin or overlooked what he was doing. Whose reaction was in due time and whose reaction was not in due time?” Remchukov said in a phone interview from Moscow.
“Was there any material connection between decisions taken and not taken,” he asked. “And from this point of view, I suspect that Surovikin will be among those who will be talked to by those who conduct this internal investigation.”
One St. Petersburg business executive said a former associate who was close to Prigozhin had “disappeared to the bottom of the sea” in the hope that no one would question him. “He is trying not to show himself anymore,” the St. Petersburg executive said.
Kremlin-connected political consultant Sergei Markov said the investigation into the betrayal was far-reaching.
“Everyone who was close to Prigozhin are being investigated,” Markov said. “I am sure that at least several hundred people are being investigated. It is a very large-scale investigation. The aim is to get information about who in reality took part or did not take part, to find out who took part in the betrayal, who took part in some kind of negotiations and should have told the authorities about it.”
“I am sure they are questioning everyone, including Surovikin and all the other generals and officers, soldiers,” Markov added. “A huge number of people will be questioned.”
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Remchukov said the biggest question was why no one acted in response to Prigozhin’s increasingly hysterical, public criticism of Russia’s military command in the weeks before the rebellion, which plainly violated tough Russian laws against discrediting the military.
“The very clear feeling was that the rebellion could have happened only because nobody did anything over the previous four weeks, when he openly and loudly violated Russian legislation,” the newspaper editor said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday declined to comment on whether there was a need to punish some officials in the wake of the rebellion.
Peskov also did not comment on rumors that Surovikin had been detained, and he directed all questions about the general’s whereabouts to the Ministry of Defense. Peskov said he had no information about Prigozhin’s location, as questions mounted about the group’s financing and its future operations in Africa.
Putin has been unusually visible in recent days, appearing every day but Sunday after Prigozhin seized control of the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday and demanded that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of Russian general staff Valery Gerasimov be handed over to him.
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Prigozhin sent columns of fighters to Moscow, and shot down six Russian helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command post plane with 10 people on board, before he accepted a deal from Putin to drop insurgency charges if he and any Wagner fighters who wish to remain active in the group halted their advance and left for Belarus.
After greeting crowds late on Wednesday in Derbent, Dagestan, in southern Russia — in what appeared to be a highly staged event designed to counter the recent images of crowds cheering Prigozhin as he departed Rostov — Putin appeared on Thursday at an Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI) plenary forum titled, “Strong Ideas for a New Time.”
The Kremlin has been trying to cement the narrative that Russian society united around Putin. But questions persist about why the Russian president failed to control the situation in the run-up to the rebellion. His refusal to communicate with Prigozhin appears to have been one factor.
At the forum on Thursday, Putin attempted to send a message to Russians that life was back to normal and he was in charge by extolling Russian creativity. He avoided mentioning the rebellion.
“The ‘new time’ is not some distant future,” Putin said. “This is, in fact, our time. We live in it today. Here are the interests of our Motherland, the country, and the aspirations of the people for whom we work, study, create, for whom we fight,” he said. Every citizen’s “contribution to the common cause” was important, he said.
“A strong, responsible civil society is the foundation of our country’s sovereignty,” Putin said, though for years he has been steadily dismantling Russian civil society. The Kremlin stepped up the crackdown after launching the war on Ukraine, jailing activists, critics, opposition figures and ordinary citizens for years, even for minor criticism of the war.
Putin spoke of the need to promote Russian brands and dabbled in trivial matters, at one point discussing the prospects for Russian ice cream sales in the occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine. At another point, he scrawled on an interactive screen, drawing an odd cartoon caricature with a square head, smiley face and wiry hair.
He admired a computer gaming station and sat in a special gaming chair, saying “Beautiful,” and “Comfortable, huh?” It all seemed to be part of an effort to sooth anxious Russians, who were left stunned at Saturday’s crisis, and the sight of Putin momentarily losing control of Russia’s security.
Dixon and Ilyushina reported in Riga, Latvia. Belton reported from London.