Speculation grows after a top Russian general disappears from public view following the Russian mercenary mutiny.
Russia's president has succeeded in exiling Wagner mercenary head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief mutiny last week, but the fate of several top generals is still unclear.
There were unconfirmed reports that one of them with ties to Prigozhin has been arrested and another was mysteriously absent from several events attended by President Vladimir Putin and embattled Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The opaque world of the Kremlin's politics has led to intense speculation that some top military officers may have colluded with Prigozhin and may now face punishment for the mutiny that briefly sent a virtually unchallenged march toward Moscow that Putin has labelled treason and a "stab in the back."
The speculation focused on Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who has longtime links to Prigozhin and hasn't been seen since the start of the rebellion when he posted a video urging an end to it.
A Russian military blogger, the Moscow Times and the Financial Times reported that Surovikin, who is also the commander of the Russian air force, has been arrested.
Alexei Venediktov, former head of the Ekho Moskvy, a prominent independent radio station that was shut down by authorities after Moscow invaded Ukraine, said Surovikin and his close lieutenants haven't been in contact with their families for three days, but stopped short of saying that he was detained.
Another prominent military messaging channel, Rybar, which is run by a former Defence Ministry press officer, reported a purge in the ranks was underway as authorities looked into allegations that some could have sided with Prigozhin.
Surovikin has been linked to Prigozhin since both were active in Syria, where Russia has waged a military action since 2015 to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and to help him reclaim territory after a devastating civil war.
While Prigozhin had unleashed expletive-ridden insults at Shoigu and chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov before last week's mutiny in which he demanded their ouster, he has continually praised Surovikin. When the rebellion began, however, Surovikin recorded a video urging a halt to the mutiny.
Speculation and gossip
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that US officials believed that Surovikin had advance knowledge about the mutiny. Asked about that report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged it off as part of "speculations and gossip."
On Thursday, Peskov refused to comment on whether Surovikin had been arrested.
Asked by The Associated Press if the president still trusts Surovikin, he replied that Putin works with the defence minister and the chief of the General Staff and referred questions about officers to the Defence Ministry. He also referred all other questions about Surovikin and his status to the ministry.
As to whether Putin considers it necessary to dismiss military officials who had had links with Prigozhin, Peskov said "the issue isn't my prerogative, and I have nothing to say on that."
The bald, fierce-looking Surovikin, who was nicknamed "General Armageddon" by Western media for his brutal tactics in Syria and Ukraine, was credited with shoring up Russian defences after Moscow's retreat from broad areas of Ukrainian territory last fall amid a swift counteroffensive by Kyiv.
Named by Putin in the autumn to lead Russian forces in Ukraine, Surovikin presided over the bombing campaign that targeted Ukraine's power plants and other vital infrastructure but failed to knock out power supplies.
In January, Putin replaced him with Gerasimov, putting the General Staff chief in charge of the Russian battle in Ukraine. Surovikin was demoted to the position of Gerasimov's deputy.
Gerasimov's own fate also is unclear after the abortive mutiny. While Shoigu showed up at several events attended by Putin, Gerasimov was mysteriously absent.
If a purge is indeed underway, it could destabilise the military chain of command and erode troop morale amid the early stage of Ukraine's latest counteroffensive and offer Kyiv a chance to reclaim more ground.