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Wagner Rebellion Reveals ‘cracks’ in Putin Government, Says Blinken

A day after renegade Wagner mercenaries almost sparked a civil war in Russia, the top US diplomat has said the uprising showed “real cracks” in Vladimir Putin’s government and may offer Ukraine a crucial advantage as it conducts a counteroffensive that could influence the outcome of the war.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said the upheaval triggered by the aborted advance on Moscow by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries on Saturday was far from over. Neither Prigozhin nor Putin have been heard from since coming to a last-minute agreement on Saturday to avert clashes near Moscow between mercenaries and regular Russian troops.

“This is an unfolding story and I think we’re in the midst of a moving picture,” Blinken told the CBS News programme Face the Nation. “We haven’t seen the last act.”

The rebellion, fuelled by anger at the Kremlin’s leadership of the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, represented the most direct threat to Putin’s grip on power since he first became president 23 years ago.

With no word from Putin or Prigozhin throughout the day, it was unclear whether Russia’s immediate crisis had passed, let alone what implications it had for the vast country’s longer-term stability. Wagner troops abandoned the positions they had held in the city of Rostov-on-Don and near Moscow, while Russian officials claimed to have dropped criminal charges against Prigozhin and reopened Wagner recruiting centres.

Russian military insiders eagerly discussed rumours of an impending shake-up at the ministry of defence, one of the main demands issued by Prigozhin during his uprising.

However, the Kremlin appeared keen to slow down developments, saying that Putin had no more plans to address the country and that the invasion of Ukraine would continue as planned.

Other top Russian officials and propagandists also remained quiet, leaving an information vacuum that has been filled with rumours about the deal hammered out with Prigozhin, and whether the Kremlin will seek revenge once the immediate threat to Putin’s power recedes.

Blinken described the weekend’s events as “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority”.

“So this raises profound questions,” he said. “It shows real cracks. We can’t speculate or know exactly where that’s going to go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead.”

He said there was no sign so far of senior Kremlin figures being dismissed as part of any deal between Prigozhin and Moscow. Prigozhin had demanded the removal of the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov.

Russian military bloggers focused attention on Aleksey Dyumin, the Tula region governor and former Putin bodyguard who is said to have a close relationship with Prigozhin and to have taken part in Saturday’s negotiations. He said he had not participated in the discussions.

In the wake of the uprising, an uneasy calm descended across Russia, with regional authorities cancelling emergency measures, fixing roads that had been barricaded against the Wagner convoy, and reopening public spaces such as museums and parks.

According to the New York Times, US intelligence agencies briefed senior Biden officials on Wednesday that Prigozhin was preparing to take military action against the defence leadership in Moscow.

Nothing was made public about the intelligence at the time, the officials said, for fear of Putin accusing Washington of orchestrating a coup, and there was no incentive for the US to help Putin avoid a big dent in his authority.

Under the few reported terms of the agreement, Wagner troops turned around on the road to Moscow and returned to their camps in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin is to move to Belarus with immunity from reprisals, but it is not clear who, if anyone, is allowed to accompany him. Wagner fighters who took part in the uprising are to be pardoned, and those who took no part are to be absorbed by the regular army.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/06/wagner-zip/giv-134255CWL7BMWSrpo/

With Wagner forces returning to Ukraine, where they have spearheaded some key offensives, it was also far from certain what impact the rebellion would have on the conflict in the midst of a slow-moving and gruelling Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Blinken said: “To the extent that it presents a real distraction for Putin, and for Russian authorities, that they have to mind their rear … I think that creates even greater openings for the Ukrainians to do well on the ground.”

The secretary of state said US officials had been in touch with their Russian counterparts throughout the crisis to remind them of their legal obligations to protect US citizens on their territory.

“A number of people have engaged to make sure that the Russians got that message,” he said.

As for concerns that any of Russia’s substantial nuclear arsenal could become the focus of internal power struggles, Blinken said: “We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture. There hasn’t been any change in ours, but it’s something we’re going to watch very, very carefully.”

As of Sunday evening, the whereabouts of Prigozhin, a media addict who issues a steady stream of commentary in voice messages on his Telegram page, were unknown. The Wagner leader had gone silent for almost 24 hours. His last post came at 6.30pm on Saturday, when he said that his troops were standing down after holding a “march of justice” and having “not spilt one drop of blood”. Reports in Russia said Wagner fighters had shot down seven helicopters, resulting in the deaths of 20 Russian soldiers.

“Now is the moment when blood can be shed,” he said. “Therefore, realising the full responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed … we will turn our columns and go in the opposite direction to our field camps.”

Prigozhin was then photographed leaving Rostov-on-Don alongside his men, and given the kind of rapturous reception that would resemble the departure of a rockstar after headlining a concert. Local men grasped his hand through the window of an SUV and posed for selfies. They berated the police who took up the positions previously held by Wagner, chanting “disgrace” and clapping their hands.

Then, Prigozhin went silent, apparently on his way to a Belarusian exile that observers said seemed unlikely for the ambitious Kremlin hanger-on.

Putin was also silent on Sunday, a day after he appeared on Russian television and said Prigozhin’s uprising would be put down “brutally”, calling it an “internal treason”.

The Russian president did not directly comment on the deal that Lukashenko said he had negotiated with Prigozhin. Lukashenko’s press office said the Belarusian president spoke with Putin on Sunday morning, but did not confirm that they had discussed the uprising.

Late on Saturday evening, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said Prigozhin would be allowed safe passage to Belarus, as confirmed by the Russian president.

“If you ask what the exact guarantee of the fact that Prigozhin will be able to leave for Belarus is, it is the Russian president’s word,” Peskov told journalists.

Source : TheGuardian