A top Russian general in Ukraine has lashed out at his bosses after being fired from his command, accusing them of undermining the war effort with dishonesty and politicking, in the latest sign of turmoil within the Kremlin’s military leadership.
In a four-minute recording released late Wednesday night, Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov addressed his troops, accusing his superiors of inflicting a blow on his forces by removing him from his post in retaliation for voicing the truth about battlefield problems to senior leadership behind closed doors. His firing, and the unusual public airing of his grievances, reflected the disarray that has roiled Russia’s military command since a failed mutiny three weeks ago.
While the 58th Combined Arms Army he commanded has been holding off a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhia region, “we were hit in the rear by our senior commander, who treacherously and vilely decapitated our army at the most difficult and tense moment,” General Popov said — an apparent reference to Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, chief of the armed forces.
Since the mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group and its boss, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, several senior officers have been detained or pushed out of their posts, according to a person close to the Russian military, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Speculation has swirled in particular about the fate of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the head of the air force and a former chief of forces in Ukraine, who hasn’t been seen publicly since the rebellion, and was said this week by a top Russian lawmaker to be “taking a rest.”
The person close to the Russian military said General Surovikin, a Prigozhin ally who reportedly knew in advance of the mutiny, was being detained. In January, the Kremlin removed General Surovikin from overseeing Russian forces in Ukraine and put General Gerasimov in direct control of conducting the war, even as he remains chief of the Russian General Staff, an unconventional conflation of duties for a military at war.
Adding to this week’s upheaval, another top Russian commander in Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Oleg Tsokov, deputy commander of the Southern Military District, was killed in a Ukrainian airstrike on Tuesday in the occupied city of Berdiansk — one of the highest-level Russian losses since the war began.
The recording of General Popov offered an exceedingly rare public glimpse into what a top Russian officer thinks about how President Vladimir V. Putin’s costly war is being waged. Western governments are eager for that kind of intelligence, but U.S. officials say they have limited insight into the views of Russian military leaders or the recriminations against them.
Also murky is the status of Wagner troops and their leader, Mr. Prigozhin — who, as of last week, was reported to be in Russia and roaming free, despite having mounted a rebellion that he said was aimed at removing inept military leaders, not Mr. Putin.
“We’re not even sure where he is and what relationship he has,” President Biden told reporters in Helsinki on Thursday. “If I were he I’d be careful what I ate.”
Until his short-lived uprising, Mr. Prigozhin, a civilian, frequently denounced Russia’s military command publicly, accusing it of incompetence and back-stabbing, which he said led to the insurrection. General Popov’s comments suggest that similar discontent exists high within the uniformed ranks.
But so far there is little indication that the fallout from the mutiny has hurt Russian forces’ ability to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which began last month and has made only incremental progress.
General Popov said that he ended up in a “difficult situation” with the Russian military’s leadership, in which he had to choose whether he would be a coward, who would tell his superiors only what they wanted to hear, or would “call a spade a spade.” He told his troops he had no right to lie in their name, or in the names of those who had died, and therefore “outlined all the problematic issues that exist in the army in the current day in terms of combat work and support.”
Specifically, he said he had reported the lack of counter-battery and artillery reconnaissance capabilities, and the excessive deaths and injuries that Russian troops were suffering on the battlefield.
“Apparently, in connection with this, the senior commanders felt some kind of danger in me and swiftly, in a single day’s light, concocted an order from the Minister of Defense that removed me from the deployment and got rid of me,” General Popov said.
It wasn’t clear whether he intended his farewell speech to his troops to be made public.
In an interview with state news channel Rossiya 24, Mr. Putin said Thursday that the weapons and tanks the West had supplied to Ukraine weren’t having the desired effect. He reiterated Moscow’s opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine, saying it would pose a security threat to Russia.
It was not immediately clear whether General Popov’s firing was connected to the Wagner uprising, but the removal of a high-level general whose forces appeared to be performing successfully, on one of the most important stretches of the front line, left many Russian observers shocked.
“The removal of Popov is a monstrous act of terrorism against army morale,” the military blogger Roman Saponkov wrote on Telegram, saying that Wagner’s failure had emboldened the Russian military leadership to purge its ranks.
The Telegram channel Rybar, run by the pro-war military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, said General Popov enjoys colossal support among the rank-and-file in the Russian military, who found the news of his firing greatly demoralizing.
“The conflict between Popov and Gerasimov highlights the main thing: the absence of unity” in the Russian armed forces, Rybar wrote. “The enemy will surely take advantage of this.”
Alexander Sladkov, a war correspondent for Russian state television, said that General Popov was not an insurrectionist and would most likely reappear in a different position on the front. He warned that the Russian military should be preserving every soldier and general in combat because “we have great trials ahead of us.” General Popov said he was still waiting to hear from military leaders about how he could continue his service.
Tension over the military turmoil was palpable in the Telegram posts of Russian politicians and commentators.
The recording of General Popov was released on social media by Andrei Gurulyov, a lawmaker and former general who once commanded the same 58th Combined Arms Army that General Popov headed.
Andrei Turchak, the secretary general of the ruling United Russia party, assailed Mr. Gurulyov for publicizing the recording. He said on Telegram that the remarks had been private and accused Mr. Gurulyov of “making a political show” of the affair, adding: “The army was and remains outside of politics.”
Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Moscow former Ukrainian official, once seen by American intelligence officials as a possible puppet leader the Kremlin might try to install in Kyiv, shot back on the same platform: “Andrei Turchak is right, the army should be outside of politics. But politics should also be outside of the army.” He added: “If the system inside the army were really effective, we wouldn’t see more and more spillage on the outside.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.