As revolt in Russia subsides, U.S. and allies brace for what comes next

A member of Wagner group stands guard in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. - President Vladimir Putin on June 24, 2023 said an armed mutiny by Wagner mercenaries was a stab in the back and that the group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had betrayed Russia, as he vowed to punish the dissidents. Prigozhin said his fighters control key military sites in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

A member of Wagner group stands guard in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. - President Vladimir Putin on June 24, 2023 said an armed mutiny by Wagner mercenaries was a stab in the back and that the group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had betrayed Russia, as he vowed to punish the dissidents. Prigozhin said his fighters control key military sites in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Published Jun 25, 2023


By Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan, Michael Birnbaum

While they struggled to make sense of Saturday's chaotic and fast-moving events inside Russia, the Biden administration and its Western allies were keenly aware there was little they could do about it beyond watching from afar.

President Biden consulted with top national security aides and his British, French and German counterparts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened Group of Seven diplomats. A message was conveyed to the Russian government, reminding them of their obligations to protect the safety of the U.S. Embassy and diplomats in Moscow. Top Pentagon officials made their own calls, canceled trips abroad and sought to reassure Ukraine, transfixed by the bizarre spectacle of Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group marching toward Moscow for a shootout with the Russian military.

And then, as quickly as it began, with Wagner head Yevgeniy Prigozhin declaring an open conflict with Russia's military leadership, it seemed to be over. As Saturday became Sunday in Russia, both Prigozhin and the Kremlin declared that a deal had been struck, Wagner troops were turning back and there would be no "Russians against Russians" battle.

Yet, just as little was clear during a day of confusion and upheaval, "we don't know if it's over," said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and former deputy secretary general of NATO. "We can speculate all we want, but the fact is we have little idea of what happens next."

While events were unfolding, the administration trod lightly in making public statements or taking any action, such as putting forces in Europe on alert, to avoid what analysts and former officials said might suggest the United States was trying to exploit the situation and play into long-standing Kremlin narratives about U.S.-led attempts to weaken Russian security.

Terse statements about consultations and briefings were all that emerged. President Biden went to Camp David as scheduled, and Vice President Harris travelled to North Carolina for an event marking the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Neither made any public mention of the Russia crisis. The administration also told the Russian government that the United States considers this a "Russian affair in which the U.S. would not involve itself," according an official familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky showed no such reticence, instead using the upheaval as an opportunity to ask for more weapons and a firm place for Ukraine in NATO, along with a warning to Russians that their foundations are crumbling.

"Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything," Zelensky said in his evening address from Kyiv. "Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability . . . We know how to win, and it will happen. Our victory in this war."

"And what will you, Russians, do? The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin," he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "the more disasters there will be."

Even before the apparent stand-down, U.S. and European officials and experts speculating about what was happening on the ground, and what it meant, had few facts beyond public statements, Russian media reports and screenshots of barricades erected around Moscow and mercenary troops on the move.

"This will have serious consequences regardless of the outcome," a European diplomat, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an evolving assessment, said before Prigozhin announced his retreat. "Prigozhin will fail, if the elite stays loyal and enough troops will be ready to fight against Wagner. But even if this implodes, it is a serious sign."

Former U.S. officials who have long dealt with Russia said that even though the immediate threat from Prigozhin may have eased, the extraordinary events had dealt a serious blow to the stability of the Russian regime.

"We have just watched armed, organized Russians who have come out of [Ukraine] and done a 400 kilometer run into Russia with the whole world watching," said retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, the top U.S. military official posted to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, and currently a fellow at the Wilson Center.

The question of whether regular Russian troops would have the will and the skill to fight the mercenaries occupied much of Western thinking Saturday.

Wagner forces have proved essential to Russia's military campaign in Ukraine and have helped secure some of its most notable tactical victories, even as other top units - including Russia's airborne and special operations spetsnaz forces - have effectively been destroyed there. "The Russian forces are too weak and don't want to fight Prigozhin," one Ukrainian official confidently asserted.

"The Russian military has committed the vast bulk of its forces to the fight in Ukraine," said Eric Edelman, a former senior defense official in the George H.W. Bush administration. "And we know that the Wagner fighters are some of the most professional and have shown themselves to be the most capable fighters on the battlefield."

A Western intelligence official predicted early in the day that Russian troops were unlikely to put up much resistance to Prigozhin's forces if they were persuaded by his arguments that Russia's military leaders, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, have performed disastrously in leading operations in Ukraine, are to blame for the extraordinary number of troops casualties and must be removed by Putin.

U.S. intelligence officials noted that Wagner fighters faced no obvious resistance when they took over Russia's southern military headquarters in Rostov-on Don, near the Ukraine border, which became the launching place for their march on Moscow. It was, the officials said, an indication that Prigozhin enjoys some level of support among regular military forces as well as its security services.

Now apparently to be exiled to Belarus without the serious criminal charges Putin had threatened, Prigozhin's future standing is unknown, as is whether those among his estimated 25,000 forces still deemed loyal to the state will continue to fight in Ukraine.

As for Russia's regular forces, "I imagine a lot of those soldiers currently deployed in Ukraine will be thinking long and hard about how enthusiastic they should be fighting against Ukrainians in a situation that must look increasingly clear to them . . . is for a losing cause," said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

Beyond the question of what immediate effect the crisis might have on the war is whether it has done any significant or lasting damage to Putin. Although Prighozhin had long criticized Russia's military leaders for inept handling of the war, a stance Putin might have considered useful in shifting blame for battlefield losses, on Friday the Wagner leader dismissed as bogus Putin's basic rationale for the war in the first place - that it was necessary to prevent an attack on Russia being planned by Ukraine and its allies in the West. Putin, who had long protected Prigozhin, responded that he was "scum" and a traitor.

A weakened Putin could face challenges from the Russian elite, or inspire leaders in Russian regions such as Chechnya and Tatarstan, many of which have long-standing grievances with the central government, to push for additional autonomy or separation from Russia. In that kind of situation, "we're very much talking about the dismantling of the Russian state as it currently exists," said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who served as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia from 2015 to 2018.

Putin may be less stable than he appeared, said Angela Stent, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. "It's not a good look for Putin that this man [Prigozhin], this leader, was able to challenge the authority of the ministry of defense, to take over a city, and to march down the road to Moscow," she said. "And obviously Putin had to bargain with him."

"This has been such a credible signal of the extent of discontent and dissatisfaction with the war in Ukraine and with the Putin regime in particular," said Kendall-Taylor, who is now at the Center for a New American Security. "It's going to be really difficult to overcome that."

The real question, said Andrew Weiss, research director on Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment, and a former National Security Council and State Department official "is are there significant, powerful people in the shadows who believe that this mess is the final straw, and Putin has screwed up so royally that they need to make him see the error of his ways and push him from power. I have a hard time believing that the scared people around him are likely to move against him."

Zwack, the retired brigadier general, said that the weekend spectacle might have broken the seal on more widespread protests against the war. "We used to say the base is for Putin, but is there another base for Prigozhin, especially as this terrible war continues, and will the regime be held accountable?" he said. "We are still in the front end of this drama. I don't think you have such an extraordinary event that just disappears."

Russia's neighbors are bracing for chaos if the situation in Moscow deteriorates, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview. The NATO nations that border Russia are some of the West's fiercest Putin critics, but they are also the most sensitive to what happens if instability spills across the heavily guarded frontier.

"If there is chaos in Moscow, there's the same question people were asking back in 1991," during a coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. "Who controls the nuclear football?" said Rinkevics, who will become Latvia's president next month.

There is no love lost in the Baltics for Putin, who has repeatedly threatened to retake the countries that were formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. Rinkevics on Friday tweeted an image of Prigozhin along with a lyric about the death of Eva Peron from "Evita," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: "Oh what a circus, oh what a show."

As it tries to position itself to react to and influence events in the region, the administration and its allies are hampered by restrictions on information, and how much of it can be trusted. "The historical thing worth remembering is that in previous eras we had a lot more data . . . In 1991," during a coup attempt against Gorbachev, "Moscow was awash with reporters," while there are now next to none, Weiss said. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is down to a relative skeleton staff, he said, and while there is a plethora of social media information from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, much of it comes from those with a vested interest, with reality often hard to discern.

There may be some satisfaction in the West toward Putin's predicament, but Renkevics said it was difficult to take any pleasure from the situation.

"Seeing the mood in Russia, the propaganda apparatus, there are going to be very challenging times ahead regardless of the turn of events," he said.

A senior military official from a NATO country agreed. "It cuts both ways," the official said. "We don't want a Russia that is too strong. But we don't want a Russia that is too weak. We don't want to have a failed state - they're still a nuclear power."

The Washington Post