Kremlin refers questions about General Surovikin's fate to the defense ministry
PHOTO CAPTION: Russian President Vladimir Putin awards General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, with the Order of St. George, Third Class, at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia December 31, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo
By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin declined on Thursday to give any details about the fate of Russian General Sergei Surovikin, whose status and location have not been made public since an abortive armed mutiny by mercenaries on Saturday.
Nicknamed "General Armageddon" by the Russian press for his aggressive tactics in Syria's war, Surovikin - who is a deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine - has been absent from view since Saturday, when he appeared in a video appealing to mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to call off his mutiny.
Surovikin had looked exhausted in that video and it was unclear if he was speaking under duress. There have since been unconfirmed reports that he is being questioned by the security services.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred questions about Surovikin to the defence ministry, which has so far made no statement about him.
Asked by reporters if the Kremlin could clarify the situation with Surovikin, Peskov said: "No, unfortunately not.
"So I recommend that you contact the defence ministry; this is its prerogative."
When a reporter asked if President Vladimir Putin still trusted Surovikin, Peskov said: "He (Putin) is the supreme commander-in-chief and he works with the defence minister and with the chief of the General Staff."
Questions about "structural units within the ministry," Peskov said, should be addressed to the defence ministry.
The ministry did not reply to a Reuters request for clarity on the fate of Surovikin, one of Russia's most respected generals who previously commanded Russian forces in Ukraine for several months.
Russia's most senior generals have dropped out of public view in the wake of the mutiny aimed at toppling the top military brass, amid a drive by Putin to reassert his authority.
The mutiny, which Putin said could have tipped Russia into civil war, amounts to the biggest challenge to the Russian state since the 1991 hardline coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union crumbled.
Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 1999, thanked the army and law enforcement agencies for preventing what he said would have been devastating turmoil of the kind last seen after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The 70-year-old former KGB spy was shown on Wednesday visiting a mosque at the ancient, pre-Arab Naryn-Kala citadel in the Derbent fortress on the shores of the Caspian Sea, around 2,000 km (1,240 miles) south of Moscow.
The Kremlin said Putin also chaired a meeting about the development of tourism in the region. Putin, pictured in sunglasses and without a tie, was shown speaking to local residents who took selfies with him.
The fate of Prigozhin, who rose to become Russia's most powerful mercenary, remains unclear.
A private jet linked to Prigozhin flew from St Petersburg, the former imperial capital of Russia, to Moscow on Thursday, though it was unclear who was on the aircraft.
The Kremlin's Peskov said he did not have information about Prigozhin's current location.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said this week that he had persuaded Putin not to "wipe out" Prigozhin, adding that the mercenary chief had flown to Belarus.
Speaking about the causes of the mutiny, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, an influential lawmaker who chairs the lower house of parliament'sdefence committee, said Prigozhin had refused to sign contracts for his mercenaries to serve under the defence ministry.
As a result, Kartapolov said, Prigozhin had been told his mercenaries would no longer fight in Ukraine and no longer receive money from the Russian state.
Putin said on Tuesday that Prigozhin, Wagner and his Concord catering company had received at least $2 billion from the Russian state over the past year.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alexander MarrowEditing by Andrew Osborn, Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich)