CIA Director William Burns said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to “buy time” as he decided how to respond to the recent mutiny of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin amid the war in Ukraine.
Burns told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that the private mercenary group’s short-lived rebellion late last month was “the most direct assault on the Russian state” in Putin’s 23 years in power and “exposed some of the significant weaknesses in the system” the Russian president has built.
“These weaknesses were exposed by the Prigozhin mutiny, but I think even deeper than that, they were exposed by Putin’s misjudgment since he also launched this invasion,” the CIA director said.
“If and when the Ukrainians make further advances on the battlefield, I think it will cause more and more Russians in the top flight and outside the top flight to also pay attention to Prigozhin’s critique of the war,” he added. “And so, this is where Putin is trying to buy time, as he considers what to do with Wagner and what to do with Prigozhin himself.”
Burns also suggested that Putin is “currently trying to work things out” in Russia, but ultimately will try to separate Prigozhin from what he values in the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin marched his mercenary troops toward Moscow last month after months of criticism of Russia’s military leadership’s handling of the war in Ukraine. However, he halted the advance, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko struck a deal allowing him and his troops to safely leave Russia and settle in Belarus.
“What we saw was the Russian security services, the Russian military, the Russian decision makers who were adrift or seemed to be adrift during those 36 hours,” Burns also said Thursday.
“So for a lot of Russians watching this, used 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?’ “, he added.
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