“Everything was done to ensure that Russia didn’t see an American hand in all of this,” said Ian Bremmer, the chairman of Eurasia Group who first wrote about the backchannel conversation in its weekly client newsletter. « From a US perspective, it was very helpful indeed to be able to communicate to Moscow that US policy is to defend Ukraine and help it take back its land, but that this is not about regime change or destroying the Russia ».
An administration official confirmed the backchanneling with Moscow to the West Wing Playbook, noting that such open channels are routinely used when officials on both sides have important messages to convey. As Prigozhin’s troops were marching through Rostov in southern Russia and towards Moscow, the State Department urged all diplomatic personnel not to leave their diplomatic compounds, a move the US official said was purely precautionary and not a reaction to a specific threat.
And Biden, in his conversations with other NATO leaders this weekend, sought agreement that the West would be better served by remaining mostly silent, our colleagues Alex Ward, Lili Bayer, Suzanne Lynch and Christina Gallardo reported this week.
But now, with Russia so clearly unstable, a Ukrainian counter-offensive struggling to gain traction, and NATO’s annual leaders’ meeting just weeks away, senior US officials are still trying to figure out what happened over the weekend, as well as to gather clues from Putin’s statements. answer.
One area of scrutiny: why Putin struck a deal with Prigozhin, a rarity for the Russian dictator. The botched mutiny appeared to reveal cracks within the Kremlin and military hierarchy, and the US is waiting to see whether Putin, for lack of a better term, will eliminate the problems. Some analysts have speculated that Putin’s relative restraint thus far may be a sign of deeper rationality, while others fear a weakened Putin could become more desperate and reckless.
Biden said on Tuesday that « it’s hard to tell » whether Putin has been dramatically weakened by the plot, voicing the generally cautious opinion of his national security team. But US officials suspect that one of Putin’s motivations for closing the deal was to avoid widespread violence on Russian soil.
This has led some to question whether they could push the envelope further in supplying Ukraine with more lethal, long-range weapons, including F-16s. Their thoughts: Putin’s red line may be softer than expected and he may choose not to escalate for fear of widening the conflict, according to two people familiar with the deliberations. But they warned that no decision has been made.
« I think there’s some opportunity there, » Secretary of State Antony Blinken said when asked Tuesday on MSNBC’s « Morning Joe » whether the chaos within the Russian military could heighten Ukraine’s counteroffensive. But, he added, US officials were still waiting to see how things play out.
The cost to the Russian people will also rise, analysts believe. If the Wagner group is sidelined, Putin loses a group of mercenaries he could lean on. Putin may now need to turn to more civilian conscripts, risking unrest at home.
The fragility of Putin’s regime also makes some US officials think more seriously the possibility of a post-Putin Russia — and a leader-controlled nuclear stockpile that could be even more destabilizing to global order.
In the short term, it is clear that the NATO summit to be held in two weeks’ time in Lithuania will take on a new urgency. Blinken teased a « robust package for Ukraine » to be unveiled by NATO leaders in Vilnius. But it is also possible that calculations within the alliance about Ukraine joining could change, given Russia’s military weakness and the very real prospect of civil war within its borders.
“It’s still a high level [for Ukraine’s potential NATO membership] because all 31 [NATO] countries need to say yes,” Bremmer said. “But this will help. The West now has fewer reasons to worry about Putin’s alleged red lines, and one more reason to worry about how to prepare for a destabilized and unpredictable situation in Russia ».