Short-Lived Mutiny in Russia Sheds Light on Putin's Hold on Power

An armed standoff on the road to Moscow between Russian military forces and demonstrators opposed to Vladimir Putin's rule was the most dramatic struggle for power in Russia in decades.

Short-Lived Mutiny in Russia Sheds Light on Putin's Hold on Power

Even though it was brief, the armed standoff in the Russian capital on the way to Moscow represented the most dramatic struggle in Russia for power in decades.


Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent and former Moscow correspondent, covered the rise of Vladimir Putin. He reported from Washington.

7:56 p.m.

Since more than a decade, American officials have privately asked themselves the question that they wouldn't dare to pose in public. Could Russia’s botched invasion into Ukraine lead to President Vladimir V. Putin’s downfall?

This weekend, for a few head-snapping, chaotic hours, it didn't seem that far-fetched. Even though the rebellious mercenary forces of Yevgeny Prgozhin have seemingly been defeated, the uprising has shown that the power of Mr. Putin is now more fragile than it's ever been since he was elected more than 20 years ago.

In the aftermath of the mutiny, President Biden and American decision-makers face both opportunities and dangers in the perhaps most volatile time since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. The chaos in Russia could cause a breakdown in its war effort, just as Ukrainian forces prepare to launch their long-awaited offensive. But officials in Washington remain nervous that an unpredictable and nuclear-armed Mr. Putin feels vulnerable.

Evelyn N. Farkas is the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a former Pentagon official. She said that it was advantageous for the U.S. because the Russians would be distracted, and thus less likely to cause new problems like Syria. The main concern is that the professional military maintains control over all nuclear facilities.

Even though it was brief, the armed standoff in the direction of Moscow represented the most dramatic struggle to gain power since the failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by hard-liners and the 1993 showdown with Boris Yeltsin. Washington, unlike in those previous episodes, did not favor one side over the other. Mr. Prigozhin has no more affinity with the United States as Mr. Putin.

Mr. Biden's response to the crisis was to not respond, choosing caution over speaking out. This would have given Mr. Putin ammunition for him to claim that this was all an international plot. This is the Kremlin's first move whenever there are domestic problems. Mr. Biden postponed his departure to Camp David in order to hold a video briefing for top advisors, which was held in the Ward Room at the White House - a temporary Situation Room as the real Situation Room is being renovated - and spoke with leaders from Britain, France, and Germany.

Jake Sullivan (the president's National Security Advisor) canceled a planned trip to Denmark to rally support for Ukraine in order to accompany Mr. Biden. Instead, he conducted the meeting via video. Mark A. Milley - the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff - also cancelled a trip to Israel and Jordan. The administration did not say anything other than to reiterate the US support for Ukraine. It remained silent and let the events unfold while officials studied intelligence in order to gain insight into the situation.

The administration had been drafting contingency plans to deal with such a situation for some time. However, on Saturday, it was scrambling to gather hard data from Russia and interpret its meaning, depending as much on online and social media sources as on traditional intelligence assets.

Officials in the United States were particularly concerned about Russia's nuclear arsenal. They were worried that the country could become unstable, and wipe out the majority of the world. A senior official in the administration said that the government had not detected any change in Russia's arsenal and has also not changed America's nuclear posture.

James Goldgeier is a professor at American University who specializes in international relations and is an expert on Russia.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a former Russia intelligence analyst who now works at the Center for a New American Security. She said that the United States had limited ability to influence the events in the country and should instead focus on preventing violence and disorder.

She said that Washington should not fuel the paranoia in Russia, which is deeply rooted, that the U.S. and NATO would seek to exploit chaos. This will help prevent an overreaction from Moscow, and in the long run, if it becomes necessary to stabilize relations with a future Russia.

The events on the ground were seen by American officials as evidence of Mr. Putin’s weakening position. Since months, they've been watching Mr. Prigozhin’s escalating dispute with the Defense Ministry leadership over the management the Ukraine war. They wondered, as many others did, why Mr. Putin tolerated this open dissent, and speculated about whether he secretly encouraged it for his political purposes.


By Saturday, the White House and National Security agencies were in no doubt that Mr. Prigozhin's damage to Mr. Putin was significant. Prigozhin, a former key lieutenant to the Russian president responsible for orchestrating the 2016 interference in the United States elections, publicly rebutted Mr. Putin's rationale and refuted the notion that the invasion of Ukraine was a justified response to alleged threats against Russia by NATO and Ukraine.

In his address to the nation on Saturday as the crisis unfolded, Mr. Putin compared the situation with 1917, when the czarist regime collapsed during a war in which things were going wrong. This comparison only served to fuel the perception that a Kremlin leader was losing control of the country. Putin's decision to make a deal with Prigozhin just hours after threatening him with crushing force reinforced the fact that he does not have exclusive control of the use or force in Russia.

Alina Polyakova is the president of Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank. She said: 'One thing's very clear. Putin looks weak.' She added that a collapse in Mr. Putin's regime would have its own dangers. The United States and their allies should 'focus on supporting Ukraine, while planning all scenarios'. This includes a fall of Putin's regime and its replacement with a hard-right group that would be more brutal and unrestrained when it comes the war in Ukraine.

Even if Mr. Putin holds on to power, policymakers are concerned that he could become more erratic if it feels like he is in a corner. Jon Huntsman Jr. said that weakness leads to riskier behavior from Putin. There's an underlying ripple to Putin's "invincibility" that will be exploited in every way.

The Russian internal strife was a welcome balm for Ukraine, who has been working with American intelligence officials and arms suppliers to drive invaders from its territory.

Wagner Group mercenary group led by Prigozhin was once considered the most powerful Russian fighting force. But with its charismatic leader moving to Belarus in apparent exile and its soldiers being absorbed into the Russian Defense Ministry it may not be as effective a unit.

According to American news, the Prigozhin revolt ended before the Russian army was withdrawn from the front line to protect Moscow. This is bad for Ukraine. The United States anticipates that the discord could fuel the doubts of Russian troops already rife about the purpose of the war, and the leadership of their country. Few believe that Mr. Prigozhin will return to his old job of selling hotdogs. Officials in the United States expect him to have more cards left.

Kurt D. Volker is a former NATO ambassador and special envoy to Ukraine. He said that the Prigozhin rebellion marks the beginning of an end to the war, and the tenure of Mr. Putin, despite the deal which ended the march against Moscow.

He said, "Don't believe the reversal." This is positioning. Prigozhin is trying to make himself look like a hero among Russians, while he gathers more support and demands. He can use the state to justify his'reluctant' defense.

As Mr. Volker said, 'there will be many more shoes to fall'