U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin had “absolutely” been weakened inside his country by last weekend’s short-lived mutiny led by mercenary Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
But Biden, speaking to reporters at the White House, said it was “hard to tell” the extent to which Putin had been diminished.
“He’s clearly losing the war in Iraq,” Biden said, meaning to refer to Putin’s 16-month war against Ukraine. “He’s losing the war at home. And he has become a bit of a pariah around the world. And it’s not just NATO. It’s not just the European Union. It’s Japan. It’s ... 40 nations.”
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, echoed Biden’s comments when speaking with VOA’s Russian service on Wednesday: "On balance, Putin is much weaker today than he was just four or five days ago. Elites in Russia, soldiers in Russia are all watching this and wondering, ‘What's happened to our leader?’
“And I think that's good. Because a weakened Russia might do less in terms of damage, principally in Ukraine,” McFaul said.
Prigozhin intended to try to capture Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, during a visit to a southern region that borders Ukraine, The Wall Street Journal reported. But Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, found out about the plan two days before it was to be executed, according to Western officials, forcing Prigozhin to move ahead with his rebellion more quickly than he had planned.
Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday at the invitation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally who claimed that he had to talk the Russian leader out of killing Prigozhin in retribution for the Wagner Group’s advance on Moscow last Saturday. Prigozhin called off the rebellion against Putin and his defense leaders well short of a confrontation with Russian troops on the outskirts of the capital.
Lukashenko on Saturday negotiated with Putin over Prigozhin’s departure for Belarus, but it still is not clear where Prigozhin is in Belarus, how many fighters accompanied him or how long he plans to stay there.
Putin has promised Prigozhin’s safety in Belarus, and according to Belarusian state media, the authoritarian Lukashenko has urged Putin to not kill Prigozhin.
"I said to Putin, ‘We could waste [Prigozhin], no problem. If not on the first try, then on the second.’ I told him, ‘Don't do this,’" Lukashenko said during a meeting with security officials, according to state media.
Western countries have sanctioned Lukashenko, 68, for cracking down on opposition figures and allowing Russia to attack Ukraine last year from Belarusian territory, while more recently letting Russia store tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for possible use in the conflict in Ukraine.
While pledging that Prigozhin would be safe in Belarus, Putin has expressed mixed views about the Wagner Group since the rebellion against his authority and the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry. Putin has characterized Wagner’s leaders as traitors but said the rank-and-file mercenaries “really showed courage and heroism" in their fight against Kyiv’s forces.
"When push came to shove, he [Putin] found a way to avoid starting a civil war. He found a way to avoid bloodshed, and maybe he's found a way to get rid of his Wagner problem and his Prigozhin problem that has been festering for a long time," McFaul told VOA.
Also Wednesday, media reported that General Sergei Surovikin, the head of the Russian aerospace forces and until January 2023 Moscow’s supreme commander in Ukraine, has not been seen in public since Saturday. In a video posted to the messaging app Telegram, he condemned the rebellion and urged the Wagner militia members to return to their bases.
Surovikin coordinated closely with Prigozhin during Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, which began in 2015, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Prigozhin’s arrival in Belarus came as Putin said Tuesday that Moscow had paid $1 billion between May 2022 and May 2023 to fully fund the Wagner mercenary fighters, contrary to claims by Prigozhin that he had financed his mercenaries.
"The content of the entire Wagner Group was fully provided by the state, from the Ministry of Defense, from the state budget. We fully funded this group," Putin told defense officials in televised remarks. Russia once denied the existence of the Wagner Group, but it has advanced Russia’s interests in several African and Middle Eastern countries.
Many of the Wagner fighters in Ukraine were convicted criminals freed from Russian prisons on the promise that if they fought in neighboring Ukraine for six months, the remaining portions of their sentences would be rescinded.
As it has turned out, however, many of the Wagner recruits were poorly trained, were ill-equipped for warfare on the front lines in Ukraine and were quickly killed.
In addition to Russia's payments of salaries and incentive awards to the Wagner troops, Putin said Prigozhin’s food and catering business was paid nearly another $1 billion to feed Russian troops.
"I do hope that as part of this work, no one stole anything, or let's say, stole less. But we will, of course, investigate all of this,” Putin said of the state’s funding of Wagner and Prigozhin’s catering company.
Prigozhin said earlier this year that he had always financed Wagner but had looked for additional funding after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin said Monday that his troops’ advance on Moscow had not been an attempt to overthrow the Russian government and that he remained a patriot. Prigozhin for weeks had complained that Russian defense officials had not provided his troops enough ammunition.
Putin has assailed the Wagner advance on Moscow as an armed rebellion and ordered that Wagner lose its heavy weaponry while its fighters either join the regular armed forces or accept exile in Belarus.
Russia’s Federal Security Service announced Tuesday that it was closing an investigation into the armed mutiny.
In a statement carried by Russian news agencies, the FSB said those involved “ceased activities directed at committing the crime.” Not prosecuting the fighters was part of an agreement late Saturday that ended the mutiny.
Russia’s Defense Ministry also said Tuesday that the Wagner Group was preparing to transfer heavy military equipment to the Russian military.
The U.S. intelligence community "was aware" that the mutiny orchestrated by Prigozhin "was a possibility" and briefed Congress "accordingly" before it began, according to a source familiar with the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Biden said earlier this week, "We made clear we were not involved. We had nothing to do with this." Biden's message that the West was not involved was sent directly to the Russians through various diplomatic channels, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. He did not characterize Russia's response.
VOA’s Russian service and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.