A Russian army commander has been fired after accusing military leadership of failing troops fighting in Ukraine. The dispute is yet another sign of cracks in the structure of Russia's army leadership.
Discussions over the recent, short-lived mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner militia had barely begun to die down when another military figure emerged echoing Prigozhin's complaints.
Ivan Popov, the commander of Russia's 58th Army in Ukraine, was dismissed from his position earlier this week after criticizing lack of artillery support as well as a high death toll among Russian soldiers.
"I had to either keep quiet, be a coward... or tell the truth... In the name of you, in the name of my fallen comrades in arms, I couldn't lie. So I outlined all the existing problems in the army," Popov said in a voice message to his colleagues.
As Popov explained, he was fired for speaking the truth about units that had no rotation for prolonged periods, adding, "while troops of the Ukrainian Armed Forces couldn't break through our army on the front, we were stabbed in the back by our senior commander, in a treasonous and vile way."
Some Russian military bloggers claimed Popov's dismissal was ordered by General Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia's armed forces, who accused the rebellious Popov of "alarmism and blackmail."
Popov's voice message was shared on the Telegram channel of Russian Parliamentarian Andrei Gurulyov — who was once in charge of the same 58th Army and is well-known for his hawkish views on the war in Ukraine, which he occasionally expresses on Russian state television.
When asked about Popov's case on Friday, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov simply responded: “No comment. Not on our agenda."
The 58th Army fighting against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhia region is thought to be one of the strongest units in the Russian Army.
Later this week, media reports suggested that Lieutenant General Oleg Tsokov of the 58th Army was killed in a missile strike on a hotel in Ukraine's southern city of Berdyansk. The Russian Defense Ministry, however, has not confirmed that information.
Although there appears to be leadership dysfunction in the military and supplies and manpower are running low, Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US, told DW that Popov's dissent "does not mean the Russian generals believe in the urgent necessity of ending the war. They may believe that the war must be continued at any cost."
Popov, in his message appealing to motivation to fight further in the name of the dead soldiers, "represents the crisis of the war philosophy" among the Russian military, said Vladimir Pastukhov, a senior researcher at University College London.
"Death for the sake of death. The war without a goal," he said, "will lead to the collapse of the army, not intrigues and plots."
What was the reaction from war bloggers?
As a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the number of pro-war channels on Telegram has increased as has the number of war bloggers who report on the conflict and advocate further escalation. Military officers are thought to run some of those channels.
One well-known Telegram channel, Grey Zone, believed to be affiliated with the Wagner Group, pointed out that Popov — who is also known as "Spartacus" — referred to his troops as "gladiators" and "enjoyed the respect of his subordinates, and his report about the lack of rotation on the front line is accurate."
Some military bloggers supported Popov, calling his dismissal "a terrorist act against the army's morale," whereas others accused him of sabotage and treason.
One influential pro-war Telegram channel suggested Prigozhin's riot had started a "witch hunt in the Russian army" that maintains "the one who talks about problems in the army is the enemy."
In response to Popov's statement, Igor Girkin, a former Moscow-installed "defense minister" in Ukraine's Donetsk region who has criticized both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin, called it "nonsense, scandal, the most dangerous precedent, and almost mutiny." He then added: "As observers correctly noted, we can only expect mutinies and the uncontrolled collapse of the army."
What are the risks for the Kremlin?
Still, this is not the first wave of reshuffling among Russia's senior military officials. In the first months of the war, when Moscow's plans for a quick seizure of Ukrainian territory proved misguided, there were already media reports about missing or detained generals.
Following Prigozhin's rebellion, purges in the Russian army resumed. General Sergey Surovikin, who has close ties with Wagner chief Prigozhin, was detained along with more than 10 other top military officials, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
Addressing the question of Surovikin's whereabouts, Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the defense committee in the Russian parliament, claimed he was "resting."
Surovikin is the commander of Russia's Aerospace Force and also briefly served as the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Nikolay Petrov, an expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said despite problems among Russia's top military brass, the situation has not yet become alarming for the Kremlin. "In the West, there is such a belief that Putin is not in control, and his reaction will be to prove that he is master of the situation and act more rigidly," he said.
As Petrov told DW, the Russian military has been built on the idea that loyalty is more important than competence, which justified itself in peace but not during war. The analyst suggests Putin faces a choice: accept risk and advance more competent generals who cannot be completely controlled, or further support Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
"While they are not popular in the Russian army, they are convenient for the Kremlin because of their loyalty and lack of political ambitions," he said. "But there is a price to pay — such a system cannot be effective."