U.S. officials, citing early intelligence reports, say that Russian authorities appear to have detained a top general under suspicion that he was involved in or had knowledge of the planning for the Wagner Group’s failed rebellion.
The circumstances surrounding the status of the general, Sergei Surovikin, are still very murky. U.S. officials cautioned that the reports were not conclusive and said they could not provide further details.
American officials would not say — or do not know — if he was formally arrested or just held for questioning.
Focus in Russia on the fate of General Surovikin, the country’s former top commander in Ukraine, has been intense following a New York Times report that U.S. spy agencies believe that he knew ahead of time about the rebellion, led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, against Russia’s military leadership.
A senior NATO-country diplomat said that firm intelligence was lacking, but that careful comments by Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov on Thursday in which he deflected questions about General Surovikin’s whereabouts seemed to confirm the general’s detention.
News of General Surovikin’s detention was earlier reported by The Financial Times.
There were conflicting reports in the Russian news media about General Surovikin’s fate. Some pro-war bloggers on the popular Telegram social network reported this week that he had been arrested, while others said that was not the case.
One popular account posted a recording of an interview with a woman it said was General Surovikin’s daughter, who denied that her father had been arrested. “Nothing happened to him,” she said. “He’s at his work location.” The account could not be independently verified.
American intelligence agencies have been trying to learn more about the general’s potential role in the rebellion: whether he simply knew about it or helped plan the revolt, which has come to be seen as the most dramatic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin in his 23 years in power.
The question is a critical one for Mr. Putin as well.
For years, Mr. Putin has allowed different factions to exist inside the Russian military. But after the short-lived mutiny, the Kremlin may be more likely to purge at least some of the senior officers who are less supportive of Sergei K. Shoigu, the defense minister.
Mr. Prigozhin had expressed rage against Russian military leadership for months before the revolt, concentrating most of his ire on Mr. Putin’s two senior military advisers: Mr. Shoigu and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff.
American officials said that Mr. Prigozhin’s failed rebellion could, at least for the time being, have the perverse effect of strengthening Mr. Shoigu’s hold on the top job, since Mr. Putin would not want to be seen as caving to Mr. Prigozhin.
Some Western analysts said the apparent detention of General Surovikin and uncertainty about the fate of other senior officers could hurt Russian troop morale.
“That there has not been a clear signal from the top about these very senior generals’ standing after the Prigozhin mutiny can’t be good for morale,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“Surovikin in particular is known to be popular with the rank and file,” Mr. Charap said. “If he has been arrested and there is no explanation from the top, one can imagine his subordinates might be preoccupied with their own safety not the war.”
Steven Erlanger and Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.