The most serious threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s control of his country comes at a pivotal moment for President Joe Biden, who’s getting dismally low approval ratings as he tries to convince American voters to support him for reelection and to convince Congress to continue to support Ukraine.
There was Russian mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin, marching toward Moscow with his fellow soldiers, who had just shot down aircraft manned by Russia’s official military. There was Putin, agreeing to a reported deal which had Prigozhin off to Belarus and the Russian president spared what could have been a fatal confrontation with a frustrated mercenary force. And there was Ukraine, mounting a counteroffensive the nation’s leaders hope will be a turning point toward victory.
It might have been tempting for Biden to do the diplomatic equivalent of a happy dance, taunting Putin for his exposed weakness at home and predicting a victory for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the U.S. and NATO countries that back him.
Instead, Biden and his administration have been almost painfully circumspect, saying very little publicly and insisting to the world generally and Russia specifically that it wants no part of the internal Russian conflict.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said at the top of an event to announce a tranche of spending on broadband access. State Department and National Security Council spokesmen said later that the administration had communicated that message directly to Russia over the weekend.
Cartoons on Ukraine and Russia
Biden said he had talked with other world leaders and they agreed, “We gave Putin no excuse to blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO.”
“This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” the president added. “We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine. But it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going.”
Later in the day, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that the conflict was inside Russia and that the United States would not choose favorites or call for regime change. The only goal, Kirby said, was to get Putin to stop his invasion of Ukraine and end the 16-month war there.
“What we’re going to do is make sure Ukraine can succeed on the battlefield,” Kirby said. In response to questions, he said the U.S. had no indication Putin would grow desperate and use his nuclear arsenal, and that he had no idea what the future held for Prigozhin’s team, the Wagner Group.
As Washington projected a calculated calm, turmoil continued in Eastern Europe.
Initial reports were that Prigozhin and Putin had agreed to a deal whereby Prigozhin would head to Russia-friendly Belarus, and Putin would agree not to prosecute him or the mercenary team members who were on their way to Moscow, apparently to confront Putin.
But dueling videos put out by the two men later in the day belied that peace. And state media in Moscow reported that the charges against Prigozhin had not, in fact, been dropped.
Putin was angry in his brief address, saying the rebels in the Wagner Group – which he did not mention by name – betrayed their country, their people and “those whom they lured into this crime. They lied to them, pushed them toward death, under fire, to shoot at their own people.”
A grim-faced Putin thanked the mercenaries for turning back but said “an armed rebellion would have been suppressed in any case.”
He warned Wagner Group members that the deal was the same as before – join the military or “return to your family and friends – whoever wants to can go to Belarus. The promise I made will be fulfilled,” Putin said. “I repeat: The choice is yours.”
Earlier, Prigozhin put out his own, 11-minute video, saying that his team’s march toward Moscow was provoked by Putin’s regime itself – specifically, demands that the Wagner Group members sign contracts with the Russian military by July 1, effectively subsuming the mercenaries into Putin’s fold.
Prigozhin said his team’s aborted mission merely exposed how weak and vulnerable Russia’s military is, a message the Kremlin does not want conveyed to a public that has been told Russia is winning the war.
The mercenaries were within 125 miles of the Russian capital before they stopped, which “revealed the most serious security flaws across the country,” Prigozhin said in his video.
It was not clear where the Wagner Group chief was on Monday. Both Kirby and State Department spokesman Matt Miller said they did not know Prigozhin’s locale for sure.
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC that Prigozhin was indeed in Minsk, Belarus, but that the safety of the Putin critic might never be assured.
“And get this, that he is in one of the only hotels in Minsk that doesn’t have any windows,” Warner said on “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Monday afternoon. “So if he is in Minsk in a hotel with no windows, that would show at least what his mindset is in terms of how his relationships are with Putin at this point,” Kaine added, referring to other Putin nemeses who have fallen to their deaths from a hotel window.
Zelenskyy – with whom Biden talked over the weekend – was buoyed by the internal strike in Russia, visiting troops at the eastern front. His office released a video of the Ukrainian president greeting soldiers.
Kirby said the events of the weekend indeed revealed the lies Russia has been telling its citizens about the war. But he also noted that Russian remains a formidable force.
“The history of this conflict has shown that the Russian military is not as vaunted as they wanted to characterize it,” Kirby said during the daily White House briefing. As Ukraine continues its counter-offensive this summer, it’s important to remember that Russia is deeply invested in its military, he said.
“The Russians still have tens of thousands of troops inside Ukraine,” Kirby said. “There’s still active fighting going on.”