A seething Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced it as a “treacherous mutiny” that was “doomed to fail.”
Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin called it a “demonstration of our protest” against the incompetently waged war in Ukraine by Mr. Putin’s generals.
President Biden, following a talk with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, insisted the U.S. had nothing to do with it.
The only thing that seemed clear Monday was that the fallout from the aborted, semi-coup staged by Mr. Prigozhin’s forces over the weekend is certain to be felt for months to come.
Those events — including the Wagner Group’s seizure of a southern Russian town, a stunning armed advance on Moscow that encountered little government resistance, and a still-murky deal to call off the rebellion and allow Mr. Prigozhin to relocate his operations to neighboring Belarus — clearly shook Mr. Putin and his top aides, already on the defensive over a 16-month invasion of Ukraine in which little has gone according to plan.
“The entire incident just showcased a wide variety of weaknesses of the Russian state,” Catherine Doxsee, associate director for transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
“What we are coming into is a period where not only are Putin and Prigozhin are competing and jostling for continued control of Wagner’s broader business empire in places like Africa and the Middle East but we also have a huge precedent set for how weak the Russian state really is, how overextended it is. … For someone who relies on his strong man image, [Putin] now looks very weak.”
Despite their long, tangled history dating back to their joint rise to power in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, a tense Mr. Putin used an unscheduled national address Monday night to vent his fury toward Mr. Prigozhin while appealing to his thousands of hired warriors to come back into the fold.
Those behind the weekend rebellion “betrayed their country and their people,” Mr. Putin said at one point. The enemies of Russia “wanted Russian soldiers to kill each other, to kill military personnel and civilians, so that in the end Russia would lose, and our society would split, choke in bloody civil strife.”
He again pressed Wagner Group fighters to sign previously offered contracts to become part of the regular Russian army, the apparent spark that lit the fuse for Mr. Prigozhin’s uprising, saying, “The majority of Wagner commanders and fighters are patriots” who were “used covertly against their brothers-in-arms.”
Mr. Putin’s remarks came shortly after Mr. Prigozhin — who was not mentioned by name in the president’s address — released his own 11-minute video from an undisclosed location denying he had targeted Mr. Putin and attempting to justify his revolt.
On his Telegram social media site Monday, Mr. Prigozhin denied the operation was an attempt to overthrow the government of his longtime benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called it “a march for justice” targeting Russian military leaders who he claimed have botched the invasion of Ukraine.
“Wagner was going to be disestablished and we protested that decision,” Mr. Prigozhin said Monday. “We stopped when it became clear that blood [would] be spilled.”
Mr. Prigozhin has made no secret of his contempt for Mr. Putin’s top military aides and how they have conducted the Ukraine war, targeting in particular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, saying they have badly mishandled the invasion and denied Wagner Group forces ammunition and needed support to help in the fight.
Separately, President Biden used a White House event Monday to make his first remarks on the Russian crisis, saying the U.S. played no role in the shadowy revolt. Mr. Biden said he had assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call that Washington would continue to support Kyiv.
Wagner’s leadership decided to march on the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don because it is the command and logistics hub for Russian military operations in Ukraine. The private mercenary firm, which has fought alongside Russian troops in the Ukraine campaign, briefly held the city and was traveling largely unopposed on the road to Moscow when Mr. Prigozhin called off the action and agreed to travel to neighboring Belarus.
“The march’s aim was not to remove the government, but [was targeted] at the bureaucracy and issues in our country that contributed to so many mistakes in Ukraine,” Mr. Prigozhin said.
He acknowledged that some Russian airmen had been killed in confrontations sparked by the uprising over the weekend. He said his firm “regretted that they were required to carry out strikes against aircraft but they were hitting our forces with bombs and rocket strikes.”
Praising Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for brokering a deal to end the fighting and protect his forces, Mr. Prigozhin said the Wagner army’s nearly successful march into Russia should serve as a “template” for how the Kremlin should have staged the initial invasion of Ukraine, which failed to achieve its primary goal of taking Kyiv and is now bogged down trying to hold off a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
Watching and wondering
While U.S. intelligence had reportedly picked up the intensifying animosity between the Wagner Group and Russia’s Defense Ministry and top generals in Ukraine, President Biden and Western leaders were in a largely wait-and-wonder mode trying to gauge the impact of the weekend’s stunning events on the Russian political scene. But Mr. Biden made a point of saying it was pointless to try to shift the blame from Moscow to Washington.
President Biden told reporters Monday he had briefed “hour by hour” on the weekend’s events and had convened a video conference with allies to coordinate a Western response. He wanted to make sure that Mr. Putin did not blame the stunning challenge to his leadership on NATO or the U.S.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Biden said at the start of a White House event on internet access. “This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”
“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going.”
Mr. Biden said he spoke with Ukraine’s Mr. Zelenskyy to affirm that no matter what happens in Russia, the U.S. would continue to support its defense against invading Russian forces. The Pentagon is planning to announce it is sending up to $500 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more than 50 heavily armored vehicles and more missiles for air defense systems, U.S. officials told the Associated Press Monday.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. also used diplomatic channels to let Moscow know it considered the Wagner revolt an “internal Russian matter.”
He declined to say whether the U.S. considered it to be an attempted coup or mutiny — or if it deserved some other label.
“We’re not slapping a bumper sticker on it,” Mr. Kirby said.
European leaders were similarly cautious in their assessments, although the general consensus was that Mr. Putin had suffered a serious blow to his once-unchallenged authority.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg Monday, said the Wagner incident dramatically illustrated the strains Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine had placed on Russia.
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Mr. Borrell said. “… The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking.”
The reaction was equally uncertain in Russia’s most important ally — China.
Chinese officials on Monday voiced support for Russia following the weekend’s events, in what analysts say reflects concerns China could lose a key ally in its battle against the democratic West.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning reaffirmed Beijing’s backing for Mr. Putin, calling the Wagner Group “incident” a “Russian internal affair.”
But with China’s support came a clear undercurrent of unease. “Recent developments in Russia have been unsettling to the Chinese leadership,” said Kurt Campbell, the White House China policy czar, told a Monday session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ms. Mao insisted Beijing’s strategic partnership with Russia remains sound and stated that “China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity, and we believe in Russia’s ability to do so.”
The two nations remained in close communication during the crisis, she said. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko hastily traveled to Beijing for meetings as the weekend’s event unfolded. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a short statement that Foreign Ministry Qin Gang and Mr. Rudenko shared views on relations and regional issues of common concern.
In Kyiv, the reaction was more open — and more hopeful. Ukraine successfully turned back Russia’s initial thrusts in the war in 2022, but a just-beginning counteroffensive in the south and east had produced only modest returns in recent days before the news of the Wagner rebellion broke.
As Mr. Zelenskyy made another trip to visit Ukrainian troops on the front lines, the conventional wisdom that Mr. Putin had the power and resources to outwait Ukraine in a war of attrition was suddenly turned on its head.
Andriy Yusov, a top intelligence official in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, told the Ukrainian Interfax news service in an interview that the most striking thing about the revolt was how little resistance the Wagner Group insurgents encountered and how few leading Russian figures rushed to support Mr. Putin publicly while the struggle hung in the balance.
“Before our eyes, the transformation of the so-called Russian Federation is already beginning,” he argued. “We saw the unwillingness of the security forces, officials of various ranks to publicly defend the Putin regime,” Mr. Yusov said.
The regime “does not fully control the situation, and the whole world saw it.”
Two top U.S. Russian analysts agreed that perhaps the most striking revelation of the past three days was the absence of strong resistance to Mr. Prigozhin’s challenge to the Kremlin, with videos showing citizens cheering Wagner Group units in Rostov-on-Don and the mercenary forces calling off the rebellion before encountering any real resistance from regular Russian forces.
There is no clear evidence of a wider plot involving other Russian military leaders other than Mr. Prigozhin, said Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University.
“It is truly remarkable that [Mr. Prigozhin’s] forces went into Rostov-on-Don and captured the regional Russian military headquarters apparently without resistance and then advanced two-thirds of the way to Moscow,” former U.S. Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, now a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, said Monday. “It doesn’t sound like there was substantial resistance from the Russian military. It looks to me like many of [them] just decided to stand down.”
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove added that the Wagner fighters and armored vehicles “really met almost zero resistance.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s force “was attacked once by helicopters that were shot down. There was at least quiescence by a lot of the local commanders and didn’t bring out troops for armor-on-armor pushback,” Gen. Breedlove said.
But the ex-NATO chief also cautioned against inflated expectations for Ukrainian forces, who still face a determined. dug-in Russian defensive line as they try to reclaim occupied lands.
The general said Ukraine’s approach to fighting a much larger force like Russia has been “very mature.” So far, their forces have focused on probing the front lines, looking for optimum locations to attack the Russian invaders.
“They are fighting with less against a country with more. We need to caution continued patience with the way that the Ukrainians are approaching this,” he said. “They’ve used less than one-third of their force so far and they have a large amount of capability yet to bring forward.”
• Bill Gertz and Guy Taylor contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service accounts.
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