Members of Russia’s elite have questioned Russian president Vladimir Putin’s judgment in the aftermath of the short-lived armed rebellion mounted last month by his former caterer and Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, senior Western officials said at an annual security conference this week.
“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 is it taking so long for him to get dressed?'” CIA Director William Burns said Thursday. “And for the elite, I think what it resurrected was some deeper questions…about Putin’s judgment, about his relative detachment from events and about his indecisiveness.”
Burns and other top Western officials spoke at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. While acknowledging the fallout from the attempted mutiny was not yet fully known, several of the officials, citing Putin’s known penchant for revenge, had macabre expectations for Prigozhin’s fate.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this,” Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, said Thursday. “If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” he said, echoing similar remarks made previously by President Biden.
“If I were Mr. Prigozhin, I would remain very concerned,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the conference on Friday. “NATO has an open-door policy; Russia has an open-windows policy, and he needs to be very focused on that.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later said the aftermath of the assault was still “unsettled and uncertain,” but that Prigozhin’s actions were an illustration of frustration with the course of the war in Ukraine.
“If Putin had been succeeding in Ukraine, you would not have seen Prigozhin running pell-mell down the track towards Moscow,” Sullivan said.
Burns said Prigozhin had “moved around” between Belarus and Russia in the weeks following his 24-hour assault, during which he and a cohort of Wagner troops claimed to have seized military headquarters in Rostov before coming within 125 miles of Moscow.
After an apparent and still ambiguous deal brokered by Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko, Prigozhin announced he and his troops would turn back. Last week the Kremlin revealed that Putin later met with Prigozhin and Wagner commanders and exacted loyalty pledges from them.
“[W]hat we’re seeing is the first cracks are appearing on the Russian side rather than on our side,” British foreign minister James Cleverly told the conference on Wednesday. “And it doesn’t matter how Putin tries to spin it: an attempted coup is never a good look.”
Still, officials said Putin appears as yet unmoved toward the contemplation of any peace negotiations, even as Ukrainian forces push forward with a grinding counteroffensive.
“Unfortunately, I see zero evidence that Russia’s interested” in entering into talks, Blinken said. “If there’s a change in President Putin’s mindset when it comes to this, maybe there’ll be an opening.”
“Right now, we don’t see it,” he said.