Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine was removed from his post as the chief of Russia’s Air Force, in what appears to be Kremlin’s most public action against those connected to the armed rebellion of the mercenary warlord Yevgeny V. Prigozhin in June.
The low-key crackdown in response to the mutiny, the most drastic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin in his 23-year rule, highlights the Russian leader’s cautious crisis-management style. So far, General Surovikin is the only senior official with ties to Mr. Prigozhin confirmed by Russian state media to have been demoted or otherwise punished in its aftermath.
Some Wagner fighters have relocated to Belarus, where officials have said the mercenaries are training Belarusian troops; others remain active in the Central African Republic, Mali and elsewhere in Africa, where they have helped prop up authoritarian leaders loyal to Moscow.
Mr. Prigozhin on Monday released a brief video message online for the first time in the mutiny’s aftermath, hinting that he was in Africa, even though the video recording’s timing and location were unclear. Dressed in fatigues and holding an assault rifle, he said that Wagner was “making Russia even greater, on all continents, and Africa even more free.”
General Surovikin has not been seen in public since the rebellion and his whereabouts has remained a mystery. In July, Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense committee of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, said that General Surovikin was “taking a rest” in response to questions from a reporter.
On Wednesday, RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, said that “the ex-commander in chief of the Aerospace Forces of Russia, Sergei Surovikin has now been relieved of his post.” It said that Col. Gen. Viktor Afzalov, chief of the air force’s general staff, had been named as the acting commander.
“Surovikin was relieved of his post in connection with the transfer to another job. He is now on a short vacation,” the RIA report added, citing a report from the Russian news outlet RBC.
Analysts have described General Surovikin, called “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics, as a brutally effective leader in a Russian military that even many Russian cheerleaders of the war have described as troubled by incompetence in its command structure. But his links to Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group, which took over a Russian city and began a march on Moscow in its brief mutiny, appeared to precipitate his fall from grace.
U.S. officials believe that General Surovikin had advance knowledge of Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. In the hours after the mutiny began, the Russian authorities quickly released a video of the general calling on the Wagner fighters to stand down.
Rumors have been circulating among Russia’s military bloggers, some of whom have close ties to Russian officials and the military, that General Surovikin had been under house arrest since the failed mutiny.
The reports about General Surovikin’s firing are “far from news for people in the know,” wrote Mikhail Zvinchuk, a popular pro-war Russian blogger who posts under the moniker Rybar on the messaging app Telegram. He added that General Surovikin lost his job immediately after Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion.
General Surovikin was appointed to lead what Russian officials describe as its “special military operation” in Ukraine in October 2022 before being relieved of that job in January. In 2015, he commanded Russia’s forces during the country’s intervention in Syria, and he was the head of the Russian air force from 2017 onward.
In his three-month stint as the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, General Surovikin helped stabilize Russia’s flailing war effort. In the fall, he oversaw what analysts described as a professionally managed withdrawal of Russian troops from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, where they were nearly encircled last fall and cut off from supplies.
He is also believed to have spearheaded the construction of Russia’s daunting network of defensive lines in the territory it occupies in Ukraine, which have challenged Kyiv’s counteroffensive.
General Surovikin’s replacement, General Afzalov, has been chief of the Air Force’s general staff since 2018, according to Russian state media, having risen through the ranks. He was “directly involved in planning and organizing” the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, in a post on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
General Afzalov had previously served as the interim commander of Russia’s air force while General Surovikin led Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine. Suspicions that General Afzalov had replaced General Surovikin were raised in July, when the former was shown in official video footage delivering an air force report to General Valery V. Gerasimov, Russia’s top military officer.