‘The mutiny sparked a witch hunt’ A general’s firing shows that even with Prigozhin gone, Russia’s military is far from united
In a newly-surfaced recording, Major General Ivan Popov, who led Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army, described a conflict he had with “senior officers.” Popov’s audio message, which was likely only intended for his fellow servicemen, was published on Telegram Wednesday by Russian State Duma deputy Andrey Gurulev, a previous commander of the same formation. Among other things, Popov says in the clip that a “difficult situation has arisen” with his senior officers that left him with a choice: “I could either remain silent, chicken out, and say what they wanted to hear, or I could call a spade a spade.” Popov said he decided to speak out.
Popov said he outlined the “combat operations” and “logistics” problems facing the Russian army to his superiors. “I drew their attention to the biggest tragedy of this war: the lack of counter-battery fire, the lack of artillery reconnaissance stations, and the huge loss of life and injuries of our brothers from enemy artillery fire,” the commander said.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on July 4 that the Ukrainian military’s primary task at the new stage of its offensive in the south of the country is the “maximum destruction [by artillery fire] of Russian personnel, equipment, fuel and artillery warehouses, command points, artillery and air defenses.” He added that the previous few days had been “especially fruitful [in this regard].” Dozens of videos showing Ukrainian artillery strikes on Russia’s rear areas, including those of the 58th Army, have appeared online.
After he voiced his concerns, Popov was removed from his post. According to Popov himself, the order for his dismissal was “slapped together hastily, in just a single day.” “Ukrainian military personnel were unable to break through our army from the front; our senior commander struck us from the rear, treacherously and viciously decapitating the army at its most difficult and tense moment,” he said.
The 58th Army is one of the largest and most effective formations in the Russian Armed Forces. In Russia’s military, an army is a strategic formation made up of other formations (such as divisions, brigades, and reinforcement and service units). The unit directly above it in the military’s heirarchy is a military district. The 58th Army played an active role in the war in South Ossetia in 2008 and served as the backbone of Russia’s joint grouping of forces during the Second Chechen War. At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the 58th Army formed the core of the troops that broke through the west bank of the Dnipro River and went towards Mariupol; it’s now the main target of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
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The Russian Defense Ministry has not officially reported any changes in the 58th Army’s leadership. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, the Russian military has announced personnel changes either long after the fact or not at all. The Defense Ministry never officially announced, for example, that Popov was named the commander of the 58th Army, but since June 2023, the agency has referred to him by that title in its official reports. As of this article’s publication, the Russian military has not commented on Popov’s claims about his superiors.
Major General Ivan Popov goes by the call sign “Spartak” and addresses his subordinates as “gladiators.” The 48-year-old officer previously served in various positions in units of the North Caucasus Military District, starting as a platoon commander. In 2016, he was appointed commander of the 33rd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade. There’s little information about him in open official sources. According to Russian military pundit Vladislav Shurygin, Popov was “with his soldiers from the war’s first days” and was “seriously injured but returned to service.”
Many of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “war correspondents” are indignant about Popov’s purported dismissal. Shurygin called it a “terrible blow to the entire army.” Alexander Kots reported hearing “positive feedback” from Popov’s subordinates and noted that he “doesn’t know all the details of the situation” and that it’s possible Popov will be appointed to a different high-level position. Roman Saponkov called the change a “monstrous attack on the army’s morale” and an “act of sabotage,” writing that “people with featureless fish eyes are removing a combat general.” Blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk said on the channel Rybar that Popov “enjoys colossal support from his subordinates” and that the news of his firing has “greatly demoralized the fighters on the front lines.”
Russian politicians and propagandists are frustrated that Popov’s statement was released publicly. Senator Andrey Turchak said that Popov’s recording was “not public.” According to him, the message was posted in closed chat groups for commanders and soldiers of the 58th Army, and Gurulev “obtained it somehow and turned it into a political show.” “Ivan [Popov’s] conscience is clear. The Motherland can take pride in commanders like him,” the senator wrote on Telegram. His statement was reposted by propagandist Margarita Simonyan.
Members of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee have called for Popov’s statement to be “looked into.” “This is a private statement. People have a variety of opinions,” said Colonel-General Viktor Zavarzin, a member of the committee. “Every situation requires an individual approach. There may be mistakes in judgements or errors in assessments. We need to look into it,” he added. Andrey Kartapolov, the committee’s head, said that Popov’s statement “has been heard, has been seen, and will be addressed by the proper parties.”
Many of the public reactions to Popov’s statement have referenced Yevgeny Prigozhin’s revolt in late June. On the Telegram channel Rybar, for example, Mikhail Zvinchuk wrote: “Prigozhin’s mutiny sparked a ‘witch hunt,’ and the governing principle has once again become ‘anyone who raises a problem is an enemy.’” According to Zvinchuk, when Popov mentioned “senior commanders” in his statement, he was referring to General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov, who was also a frequent target of Prigozhin’s criticism. “The conflict between Popov and Gerasimov highlights the main issue: the lack of unity in the Russian Armed Forces,” said the pundit.