Last month’s mutiny in Russia damaged President Vladimir Putin’s carefully crafted image as a strong leader, and he is likely to seek revenge against the man who led the rebellion, CIA Director William Burns said Thursday.
The uprising by Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group paramilitaries “exposed significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built,” with the country’s security services, military and policymakers appearing to have been “adrift” for 36 hours, Burns told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
The June 23-24 mutiny threatened the image Putin has sought to paint of himself as the “arbiter of order” in Russia, Burns said. Instead, for a brief period, Wagner’s forces advanced towards Moscow without resistance.
For Russians accustomed to seeing Putin in charge, “the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’ or at least ‘Why does it take him so long to get dressed?’ “said Burns.
For the Moscow elite, the episode resurrected questions that had arisen since the invasion of Ukraine “about Putin’s judgment, his relative detachment from events and his indecisiveness”.
“The most remarkable thing that happened that day was that Putin was forced to make a deal with his former caterer,” an allusion to Prigozhin’s earlier career as a caterer for public school and Kremlin events, Burns said, referring to the ambiguous arrangement in which Wagner’s forces were supposed to be absorbed into the Russian military.
The rebellion represented “the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power”, Burns added.
Now Putin is waiting, “trying to buy time as he thinks about what to do with Wagner and what to do with Prigozhin himself. Putin hates, in my experience, in any way the image that he is overreacting,” Burns said. “He is trying to work things out.
Putin will most likely want to phase out Prigozhin but keep Wagner’s outfit because he sees paramilitaries as a useful tool, including in Africa and the Middle East, Burns said.
“What he will try to do is separate Prigozhin and undermine him, but preserve what is valuable to him,” he said.
But as the “ultimate apostle of recovery,” Putin will almost certainly take on Prigozhin when the time comes, said Burns, a former career diplomat and ambassador to Russia.
“I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retaliation for this,” Burns said, adding, “If I was Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my taster.”