Russia’s crisis involving a mercenary group’s aborted revolt against the Kremlin exposed “real cracks” in President Vladimir Putin’s rule, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday.
The uprising by the armed Wagner group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin over the weekend, with Prigozhin’s private military rushing towards Moscow before they were called off in a stunning development for nuclear-armed Russia, marked “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority,” Blinken told CBS News talk show “Face the Nation.”
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“So this raises profound questions, it shows real cracks,” the top American diplomat said.
The remarks were the first public declarations about the crisis by the United States, which over the past 24 hours had been intensively engaged in consultations with European allies on the revolt.
Blinken, making the rounds on multiple Sunday talk shows, said it was too early to speculate on the impact of the rebellion, either on the Kremlin or on the war in Ukraine.
But he deemed it an “extraordinary” series of events, in which a close Putin ally — who sent his private mercenaries into Ukraine to undertake some of the most brutal fighting of the war — rapidly turned against Russia’s leader and threatened the very center of power in the Kremlin.
While 16 months ago Russian forces were on Kyiv’s doorstep, “now, over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making,” Blinken told ABC News show “This Week.”
He said the Prigozhin drama has shown just how deep of a “failure” the invasion of Ukraine has been for Russia, and how much Putin, whose grip on power had appeared absolute in recent years, is “being challenged from within.”
“Prigozhin… has raised profound questions about the very premises of 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.”
Putin on Saturday accused Prigozhin of treason and vowed tough punishment, but then accepted an amnesty deal in which the Wagner chief would avoid prosecution and leave for neighboring Belarus.
Blinken said that Moscow being “distracted” over the revolt may “help the Ukrainians on the battlefield” in the midst of Kyiv’s counteroffensive against Russian forces.
But “we can’t speculate” on how the Wagner crisis will play out in Russia, he said.
Washington’s former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said the deal struck with Prigozhin is “embarrassing” for Putin, noting how crowds of people cheered Wagner troops as they took the streets of some Russian cities.
Such scenes will be “very striking to Putin and Kremlin officials” because “now there’s a real opposition candidate who’s not in jail,” McFaul told MSNBC.
“And I just can’t imagine that Prigozhin is going to sit on the sidelines.”