Members of Russia’s elite have questioned the judgment of Russian President Vladimir Putin following the short-lived armed rebellion staged last month by his former handler and leader of the Wagner mercenary group.senior Western officials said at an annual security conference this week.
“For many Russians watching this, accustomed to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’ Or at least, ‘Why does it take him so long to get dressed?'” CIA Director William Burns said Thursday. “And for the elite, I think it raised deeper questions…about Putin’s judgment, his relative detachment from events and his indecisiveness.”
Burns and other top Western officials spoke at the annual security forum in Aspen, Colorado. While acknowledging that the fallout from the attempted mutiny was not yet fully known, several of the officials, citing Putin’s known penchant for revenge, had grim expectations for Prigozhin’s fate.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of revenge, so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escaped further retaliation for that,” Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, said Thursday. “If I was Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my taster,” he said, echoing similar remarks made earlier by President Biden.
“If I were Mr. Prigozhin, I would remain very worried,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday at the conference. “NATO has an open door policy; Russia has an open window policy, and he has to be very focused on that.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later said the aftermath of the assault was still “uncertain and uncertain”, but that Prigozhin’s actions were an illustration of frustration over the course of the war in Ukraine.
“If Putin had been successful in Ukraine, you wouldn’t have seen Prigozhin running haphazardly down the track to Moscow,” Sullivan said.
Burns said Prigozhin “moved” between Belarus and Russia in the weeks following his 24-hour assault, in which he and a cohort of Wagner soldiers claimed to have seized military headquarters in Rostov before approaching within 200 km of Moscow.
After an apparent and motionlessbrokered by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Prigozhin announced that he and his troops would turn back. Last week, the Kremlin revealed that Putin then met Commanders Prigozhin and Wagner and demanded pledges of loyalty from them.
“[W]What we are seeing is the first cracks appearing on the Russian side rather than our side,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told the conference on Wednesday.
Yet officials said Putin still seemed uninterested in the idea of any peace talks, even as Ukrainian forces advanced with an overwhelming counteroffensive.
“Unfortunately, I see no evidence that Russia is interested” in starting talks, Blinken said. “If there is a change in President Putin’s mindset on this, maybe there will be an opening.”
“At the moment we don’t see it,” he said.