Blowback from a powerful Russian mercenary group’s insurrection against the Kremlin swirled in Moscow on Sunday, laying bare the depths of an internal crisis facing Vladimir Putin and fueling speculation the war in Ukraine will eventually lead to his downfall.
The short-lived but intense mutiny by Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin was the most severe challenge to Russia’s power structure since the messy aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse more than three decades ago. U.S. officials say the rebellion is likely to reverberate in unpredictable ways for weeks to come.
While Saturday’s march toward Moscow by Wagner forces ended without a full-blown security meltdown, questions mounted Sunday over a deal struck between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin, a onetime protege of the Russian leader. And uncertainty grew over the future role of the paramilitary group that the Kremlin has relied upon as a backbone of its war in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin, a notoriously clever but unforgivingly authoritarian leader, is scrambling to control the volatile Russian security establishment after 16 months of a war that has taken a deadly toll and badly damaged his image as a powerful head of state.
It was not immediately clear Sunday whether the rebellion represented the beginning of the end of Mr. Putin’s more than two-decade hold on power.
Some analysts warned the Russian leader will attempt to seize the moment to engage in a full-throttle — if only chaotic — purge of the security establishment and sharpen an already aggressive crackdown on dissent in Russia.
SEE ALSO: Blinken: Wagner rebellion ‘shows real cracks’ in Putin’s hold on power
“We haven’t seen the last act,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned on Sunday, asserting that “we’re in the midst of a moving picture.”
Washington is prepared “for every contingency in terms of what happens in Russia,” Mr. Blinken told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” asserting that when dealing with “a major power that has nuclear weapons, that’s something that’s of concern, something we’re very focused on.”
“We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture,” the secretary of state said. “There hasn’t been any change in ours, but it’s something we’re going to watch very, very carefully.”
His comments underscored the uneasy international wariness since Mr. Prigozhin declared an armed rebellion against the Putin government on Friday.
The mercenary leader, with 25,000 private Russian soldiers under his command, initially said the rebellion was aimed at ousting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and military Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov. In a video, Mr. Prigozhin accused the two of disastrously mishandling the Ukraine invasion. He also openly questioned Mr. Putin’s rationale for it.
By dawn Saturday, Wagner fighters had seized control of Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a command facility that oversees all Russian military forces operating inside Ukraine. Then began a shocking and largely unhindered advance toward Moscow, where the Kremlin braced for a clash by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and Russian military troops on the city’s southern edge.
SEE ALSO: China muted in response to chaotic developments in Russia
By Saturday afternoon, roughly 3,000 Chechen soldiers were hastily pulled from Ukraine and rushed to the Russian capital, according to state television reports in Chechnya. Work crews were also reported to have quickly dug up sections of highways leading into the capital to slow the Wagner march.
The specter of chaos reverberated across global news outlets. Russian media reported that Wagner forces had downed several Russian military helicopters and a military communications plane. A handful of international outlets published unconfirmed reports that Mr. Putin had secretly fled Moscow.
Crisis was then suddenly averted, with Mr. Prigozhin declaring that he was turning around his troops upon reaching a deal with Mr. Putin, under which the Wagner chief would leave Russia and go to neighboring Belarus. A Kremlin spokesman confirmed the deal, saying charges against Mr. Prigozhin for mounting the rebellion would be dropped.
By Sunday afternoon, the mercenary forces had pulled back from public view in Russia, while Russian military forces had also withdrawn from Moscow, where there were reports of civilians swarming into the streets and flocking to cafes.
‘Cracks’ in Putin’s armor
Mr. Blinken called the insurrection “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority,” and referenced Wagner’s role for Russia in Ukraine, where the mercenaries have for months been active in the conflict’s bloodiest and longest battles.
“It shows real cracks,” the secretary of state told CBS, adding that divisions emerging in the Russian military and security establishment beneath Mr. Putin is “an unfolding story.”
“But just step back for a second and put this in context,” he said. “Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, thinking they’d take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Now over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making.”
Mr. Prigozhin has “raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative,” Mr. Blinken added.
The 62-year-old Mr. Prigozhin, a former convict, has longstanding ties to Mr. Putin and has won lucrative Kremlin contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” The past decade has seen Wagner forces dispatched to hotspots around the world, including Libya, Syria and several African countries, as well as Ukraine.
Regional sources said the Kremlin’s sudden offer of amnesty to Mr. Prigozhin was negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, reasoning that Mr. Lukashenko may have intervened in a bid to raise his own stature with the Russian president.
NATO braced through the weekend in anticipation of a potentially disastrous security meltdown in nuclear-armed Russia.
The White House said President Biden discussed the developments with the leaders of Germany, France and the United Kingdom on Saturday. Mr. Biden did not speak publicly on the developments.
China’s reaction was notably muted. The communist party-ruled government in Beijing, which has drawn increasingly close to Mr. Putin amid the Ukraine war, offered only limited public comment over the weekend.
However, Russian officials said China privately offered support in the face of insurrection.
“The Chinese side expressed support for the efforts of the leadership of the Russian Federation to stabilize the situation … and confirmed its interest in strengthening the cohesion and further prosperity of Russia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The statement came after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrew Rudenko held talks with Chinese officials in Beijing.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry initially said only that Mr. Rudenko had exchanged views with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Sino-Russian relations, according to Reuters, which reported the ministry later said it supports Moscow in maintaining its national stability.
While Western media devoted feverish coverage, the English-language versions of China Daily and People’s Daily — two of the Chinese Communist Party’s primary news operations — carried almost no mention of the developments on Saturday and Sunday.
Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news wire, followed Russia state media reports and summarized the friction between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin.
Although China has attempted to portray itself as neutral on the Ukraine war, Beijing has dramatically increased its economic coordination with Russia, including through the purchase of Russian oil and gas sanctioned by Washington and the European Union.
Almost a coup
Officials in Ukraine hope the Russian infighting will create opportunities for an ongoing Ukrainian military counteroffensive to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ariel Cohen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said “the Wagner rebellion is the most serious challenge to the Russian state’s foundations since 1993, when the Supreme Soviet rebelled against Boris Yeltsin, who brought in tanks to suppress the attempted coup.”
“Prigozhin has demonstrated just how weak the Putin regime is,” Mr. Cohen wrote in an analysis published by the think tank, noting that briefly on Saturday, “it appeared that Putin had left Moscow and Prigozhin might enter the city and finish off a coup despite the lack of outright support from any representatives of the Russian ruling circles.”
“Many Russian leaders, including the powerful Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev refrained from criticizing Prigozhin, suggesting that he may have at least some support at the highest echelons of power,” Mr. Cohen wrote.
András Tóth-Czifra, a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said it “is difficult to imagine a stable equilibrium [in Moscow] after today, even with the agreement that will theoretically see Prigozhin go into exile and Wagner tamed.”
“A lot of taboos in Russian politics have been broken,” Mr. Tóth-Czifra said in comments circulated to journalists. “Putin’s own image as a firm hand has taken a hit. It is difficult to see how this toothpaste will now go back into the tube.”
Others, including Philip Wasielewski, who heads FPRI’s Center for the Study of Intelligence and Nontraditional Warfare, noted that “Prigozhin has lost his mercenary force, his fortune, and possibly his life in the indeterminate future.”
At the same time, however, Russia’s war in Ukraine “has lost one of its few motivated and capable fighting forces at a time such forces are desperately needed at the front,” Mr. Wasielewski said.
“Putin may appear to be in a more favorable position now that he has put down a threat to his rule.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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