Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Russian mercenary army Wagner Group’s brief insurrection “was a direct challenge to [President Vladimir] Putin’s authority,” asserting that the Russian leader now has “a lot” to answer for over his messy war in Ukraine.
The mercenary rebellion, which was quelled Saturday, “raises profound questions” and “shows real cracks” in the Russian power structure, said Mr. Blinken, adding that the division of Mr. Putin’s military and security establishment is “an unfolding story.”
“I think we’re in the midst of a moving picture,” the secretary of state told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“We haven’t seen the last act. We’re watching it very closely and carefully, but just step back for a second and put this in context,” he said. “Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, thinking they’d take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Now over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making.”
Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has “raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative,” Mr. Blinken added.
His comments showed the intensity with which U.S. officials have monitored the developments in Russia following Mr. Prigozhin’s declaration of an armed rebellion against the Putin government on Friday.
The mercenary leader initially said the rebellion was aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister, and Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenary fighters appeared to seize control of the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don that oversee Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group fighters, who represent a paramilitary operation funded by the Kremlin in recent years to fight in Ukraine and around the world, had advanced early Saturday towards Moscow largely unhindered. Russian media reported Saturday that the mercenaries had downed several Russian military helicopters and a military communications plane during the rebellion.
The Wagner Group fighters were halted Saturday when a deal was suddenly announced between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin, under which the mercenary group’s chief would leave Russia and go to neighboring Belarus — a country that has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Kremlin spokesman said charges against Mr. Prigozhin for mounting the rebellion would be dropped, and Mr. Prigozhin subsequently ordered his troops back to their field camps.
Mr. Blinken told CBS that U.S. officials are prepared “for every contingency in terms of what happens in Russia.”
While he said the insurrection was “an internal matter for the Russians to figure out,” he added that “when we’re dealing with a major power, and especially a major power that has nuclear weapons, that’s something that’s of concern, something we’re very focused on.”
“We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture,” the secretary of state said. “There hasn’t been any change in ours, but it’s something we’re going to watch very, very carefully.”