Vladimir Putin’s deputy head of Russia’s ground forces has earned the nickname of the Kremlin’s “naked general” shortly after an explosion took out a sophisticated Russian spy jet in Belarus.
On Monday, activists opposing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko—a staunch Putin ally—claimed responsibility for blowing up an advanced Russian spy plane near Belarus’ capital, Minsk.
The Beriev A-50 aircraft, worth around $330 million, was attacked by drones. According to Aliaksandr Azarov, the leader of the BYPOL group that claimed the attack, this was the first of more to come from Belarusian “partisans.”
“We work on, continuing our battle against Russian occupiers on the territory of Belarus,” Azarov told Reuters on Monday.
Lieutenant General Matovnikov (L) and Vladimir Putin (R) pictured in Moscow. A leaked video appearing to show Matovnikov dancing naked was published on Telegram shortly after a Russian spy plane was attacked in Belarus. Kremlin.ru
The Russian military reportedly only has around 10 airworthy A-50 spy planes, according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank. But they may only have as few as two of these sophisticated reconnaissance planes, according to Glen Howard, President of the Jamestown Foundation think tank.
“For this attack to happen deep inside Belarus is a huge embarrassment to the Russian army and high command,” Howard told Newsweek.
On Tuesday, a leaked video of Lieutenant General Alexander Matovnikov dancing naked to music was posted to the Telegram messaging app.
A caption posted alongside the video said the general “likes to shift the responsibility for making decisions to his subordinate officers.”
Matovnikov is the deputy commander-in-chief of Russia’s land forces and was appointed to the post in January 2020 by a Kremlin decree. He has been designated a “Hero of Russia,” and has previously led military forces in the North Caucasus Federal District of Russia. He is believed to have spent more than three decades in the anti-terrorism unit of the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, according to the ISW.
Russia’s military presence in Belarus currently falls under his charge, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. Ukrainian news outlet UNIAN, or the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency of News, said Matovnikov was “personally responsible” for the air base.
A post on the Gray Zone Telegram channel, linked to the Wagner Group of mercenaries, said analysts “should not be surprised” by the explosion at the Machulishchy airfield, as it is reportedly under Matovnikov’s command.
Russian media outlets reporting on the video have linked the leaked footage to the attacked reconnaissance plane, according to Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, U.K.
In theory, Matovnikov “could certainly be held responsible for the incident because he is in charge of the Russian contingent” even if he had “nothing to do” with the explosion at the airfield, she argued.
“However, it remains to be seen what the Russian side does as the official statement was that this is a matter for Belarus not for Russia,” Miron told Newsweek.
But the fact that the video surfaced “so quickly” after the explosion outside of Minsk “is a way to further discredit” Matovnikov, Miron said.
“I see this as a part of the ongoing information war which both Ukraine and Russia wage against one another,” she said, adding that Russia-linked accounts have behaved similarly towards Ukraine’s army chief, General Valery Zaluzhny.
“The Russians would call this a “kompromat” which has been released to damage the General’s reputation and amplify his “clumsiness” which allowed for the Russian AWACS [early warning and control reconnaissance aircraft] to be destroyed,” she continued.
Howard told Newsweek that Matovnikov is in the firing line, and “someone will lose their job over this.”
The attack should be seen in the context of the ongoing Russian push for the Donetsk city of Bakhmut, and of high-profile complaints of ammunition shortages in Russia’s forces on the ground, Howard noted.
“I would look at this attack on the A-50 in Belarus as a part of that,” he said, although he suggested some sources indicate Ukrainian special forces are operational inside Belarus and may have been working with local sources to launch the attack.
The Russian defense ministry has been contacted for comment.