The unprecedented challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin by Wagner Group fighters has exposed “cracks” in the strength of his leadership that may take weeks or months to play out, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, as Russia ally China says it supports Moscow in “protecting national stability”.
In a series of television interviews, Blinken and members of the United States Congress said that Saturday’s turmoil in Russia has weakened Putin in ways that could aid Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russian forces within its territory while benefitting Russia’s neighbours, including Poland and the Baltic states.
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“I don’t think we’ve seen the final act,” Blinken said on ABC’s This Week news programme after an aborted mutiny by forces led by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Blinken said tensions that sparked the action had been growing for months and added the threat of “internal matter” could affect Moscow’s military capabilities in Ukraine.
“We’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go, and when they get there. But certainly, we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead,” Blinken said.
US officials expect to learn more soon about the events that unfolded in Russia, including details of the deal with Prigozhin mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that led Wagner fighters to return to their bases.
Forces led by Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and ex-convict, have fought the bloodiest of battles in Russia’s 16-month war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, China – which has maintained close ties with Putin since the Ukraine operation was launched – called the revolt an “internal affair” and expressed support for Putin’s government.
This came after China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang met Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday.
According to Yulia Shapovalova, a journalist in Moscow, Russians are continuing to support Putin as “he controlled the situation” but “many admit the mutiny has dealt a blow to President Putin’s reputation”.
“Others say that Prigozhin is obviously a player in Vladimir Putin’s political system and all he has – the funds, human resources, all the weapons – all that comes from the state and he totally depends on Vladimir Putin, despite his rivalry with the Ministry of Defence,” Shapovalova said.
‘Distracted and divided’
According to The Washington Post and New York Times, US intelligence agencies had picked up signs days ago that Prigozhin was preparing his troops to mutiny, with officials holding briefings at the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about the potential for unrest a full day before Prigozhin made his move against the Russian military leadership.
House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner said Putin’s future actions in Ukraine could be inhibited by Prigozhin’s assertion that the rationale for invading Ukraine was based on lies.
“Taking down the very premise makes it much more difficult for Putin to continue to turn to the Russian people and say, we should continue to send people to die,” Turner told CBS’s Face the Nation programme.
Retired US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, former head of US European Command, said the turmoil demonstrates a degradation of Russian capabilities.
“One of the outcomes, I believe, of the last 36 hours, maybe 48 hours, is that the institutions that we have long seen as being very secure in Russia are slowly unraveling,” Breedlove said in an interview. “The whole institution of the military now, the appearance of what the Russian military is, is much diminished.”
US Senator Ben Cardin said the weekend turmoil in Russia does not ease Washington’s need to continue aiding Ukraine as it launches its long-awaited counteroffensive against Russia.
“This is a critical time for Ukraine. This counteroffensive is going to be defining as to where we’re going to be in the next year or two,” Cardin, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he discussed the weekend’s turmoil in a “positive and inspiring” phone call with US President Joe Biden and that the events had exposed the weakness of Putin’s rule.
In a statement, Zelenskyy called for global pressure to be exerted on Russia and said that he and Biden had also discussed further expanding defence cooperation with an emphasis on long-range weapons.
According to a White House statement, Zelenskyy and Biden discussed Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.
“President Biden reaffirmed unwavering US support, including through continued security, economic, and humanitarian aid,” the statement said.