Documents shared exclusively with CNN suggest that a top Russian military commander, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, was a secret VIP member of Wagner, the private military company that staged a brief rebellion exposing disunity among senior Russian military officials.
The documents, obtained by the Russian investigative Dossier Center, showed that Surovikin had been assigned a personal VIP Wagner registration number in 2018.
Surovikin is listed along with at least 30 other senior Russian military and intelligence officials, who the Dossier Center said are also VIP Wagner members. The identities of those officials has not been revealed.
There is no evidence that Surovikin was on Wagner’s payroll but the VIP membership for so many senior figures implies an overly close relationship between the Russian military and the mercenary group.
Wagner has not answered CNN’s request for a response.
This suspicion of divided loyalty between Wagner and the Russian military, which could have played a role in allowing the group’s fighters to take a key base in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don with little resistance, may fuel a purge of top military leaders.
Surovikin has not been seen in public since last Saturday, when he released a video in which he held a machine gun and nervously pleaded for Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to stop his insurrection. His whereabouts are unknown since then.
The New York Times reported the Russian general “had advance knowledge” of Prigozhin’s revolt, which represented the most serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s tenure in his 23 years in power.
Surovkin called on Prigozhin to stop the rebellion soon after it began but he appeared to be stammering as though reading from a script, prompting speculation about his state of mind.
Prigozhin was last spotted leaving Rostov-on-Don Saturday, after abruptly calling off his troops’ march on Moscow.
He released an audio message Monday, explaining his decision to turn his troops back. The Kremlin and the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Saturday that Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for Belarus, although there has been no verifiable confirmation of his arrival.
After a weekend of chaos, Putin tried to reassert his authority in a display of unity, making rare public appearances and telling his troops they “stopped a civil war” by refusing to join with Wagner fighters.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected suggestions that Wagner’s failed mutiny jeopardized Putin’s grip on power, saying Prigozhin’s abrupt withdrawal demonstrated “the level of unity within society around the president.”
Surovikin – nicknamed General Armageddon for his ruthless tactics – has been a trusted Kremlin military commander, who oversaw Russian military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine. But there are now questions in Russia over whether the Kremlin trusts him still.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová, Jo Shelley, Anna Chernova and Sophie Tanno contributed reporting.