July 13, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russian military commander dismissed for voicing  grievances

Institute for the Study of War

Former Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Major General Ivan Popov claimed in leaked audio that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed him for expressing persistent grievances about problems on the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline to senior commanders. Russian State Duma Deputy and former Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District (SMD) Lieutenant General Andrei Gurulev leaked Popov’s audio message on July 12 in which Popov stated that Russian command fired him for expressing grievances over the lack of support for Russian forces and replaced him with Lieutenant General Denis Lyamin. Popov claimed that he expressed concerns to the “highest level” of Russian command over the lack of Russian counter-battery warfare capabilities, the absence of artillery reconnaissance stations, significant Russian casualties from Ukrainian artillery fire, and other issues. Popov claimed that Shoigu fired him because his honesty in voicing various problems in the Russian military threatened the Russian command. Popov claimed that he chose to “call a spade a spade” in the name of his dead comrades instead of “remaining in silent cowardice.” Russian sources previously claimed that Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov dismissed Popov for expressing concerns over the need for troop rotations in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

Popov was very likely aware that a recipient of his message in the veteran community of the 58th CAA would leak the audio recording. Popov reportedly distributed the recording to various actors including commanders, personnel, and veterans of the 58th CAA. Gurulev, a former Chief of Staff of the 58th CAA, posted the recording on his Telegram channel on July 12, after which some prominent voices of the Russian ultranationalist community criticized Gurulev for breaking the sanctity of a private chat. The voices accused Gurulev of leaking the audio in order to politicize the situation and bolster his own public appeal. Popov’s choice to distribute the audio to voices within the Russian veteran community suggests that he likely used unofficial or non-secure channels to distribute this message and that he was likely aware of the risk of using such channels for a supposedly limited audience. Popov may have intended for some recipients to leak the audio. Gurulev is a prominent voice in the Russian veteran community who has previously criticized the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war, so was likely to distribute such a recording from an insecure channel. One milblogger claimed that Popov purposefully released the audio to demonstrate that Popov does not fear the wrath of the Russian military command. A Russian source leaked Popov’s grievances and reports of his dismissal on July 11 prior to the leak of the recording, which may suggest that Popov may have coordinated the timing of the July 12 leak.

Popov equated himself with a rebellion leader less than a month after the Wagner Group rebellion, regardless of whether he intended for the recording to leak. Popov referred to himself as “Spartak” – his longtime callsign – and his subordinates as “gladiators,” likely deliberately invoking the memory of Roman slave rebellion leader Spartacus. Popov may have used this comparison to underscore his self-portrayal as separate from the inept and actively harmful Russian military command. Popov claimed that Russia’s “most senior [military] commander” (likely referring to Gerasimov) is attacking Russian forces from the rear as they defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive on the frontline and painted himself as morally obligated to raise his concerns with the Russian military command. Popov’s portrayal of himself as a rebellion leader with grievances against the MoD – whether intentionally or otherwise – is notably reminiscent of the self-portrayal and rhetoric of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin leading up to and during his June 24 armed rebellion. Popov notably has no known affiliations with Wagner or Prigozhin, however.

Key Takeaways:

  • Former Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Major General Ivan Popov claimed in leaked audio that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed him for expressing persistent grievances about problems on the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline to senior commanders.
  • Popov likely attempted to appeal to the Kremlin to partially or fully strip Gerasimov of command over operations in Ukraine.
  • Gerasimov may have tried to shield Putin from unwanted criticism to uphold Putin’s ignorance by firing Popov before he could appeal directly to the Kremlin.
  • Popov’s attempt to directly appeal to Putin for support and his insubordination of Gerasimov’s command is indicative of a pattern of corrosive behavior that has developed within the Russian command and the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
  • Russian milbloggers expressed varied reactions to Popov’s dismissal, though none disagreed with Popov’s complaints about problems Russian forces experience on the front.
  • Disruptions to the Russian command overseeing Russian defensive operations in southern Ukraine will likely have some immediate but marginal impacts on Russian forces.
  • Popov’s dismissal over the issue of Russian casualties and reported complaints about lack of force rotations further supports ISW’s assessment that Russian defenses in Ukraine are likely brittle
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the frontline on July 13 and made gains in some areas.
  • The Kremlin reportedly ordered the detention and suspension of several senior military officers following the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion on June 24, supporting ISW’s prior assessment that the Kremlin likely intends to purge the MoD of figures viewed as disloyal.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of Shahed drone strikes across Ukraine on July 13.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources engaged in positional battles near Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks and reportedly advanced around Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to conduct ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces reported conducting limited offensive operations in western Donetsk Oblast and continued counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts border area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and made some gains in western Zaporizhia Oblast as of July 13.
  • Russia may not be fulfilling some of its commitments to Iran in their bilateral security partnership, even as the Russian military continues to rely heavily on Iranian-made drones in Ukraine.
  • The Associated Press (AP) reported on July 13 that Russian forces and occupation administrations are conducting a wide scale campaign to detain and abuse civilians and are planning to build additional internment infrastructure in the occupied territories.
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