For more than a year, American officials have quietly asked a question they would not dare to ask in public: Could Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine ultimately lead to the downfall of President Vladimir V. Putin?
For a few chaotic and mind-boggling hours this weekend, the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched. But even with the apparent end to the immediate threat posed by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebel mercenary army, the short-lived uprising has suggested that Putin’s power is tenuous than ever since he took office more than two decades ago.
The aftermath of the mutiny leaves President Biden and American policymakers both opportunities and dangers at perhaps the most volatile moment since the early days of the invasion of Ukraine. The unrest in Russia could lead to a breakdown in its war effort just as Ukrainian forces are mounting their long-awaited counter-offensive, but Washington officials remained nervous about an unpredictable nuclear-armed Mr. Putin who felt vulnerable.
« For the United States, it is beneficial for the Russians to be distracted and this will weaken their military effort in Ukraine and make them less likely to continue instigating new problems in places like Syria, » said Evelyn N. Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and former Pentagon official. « The main thing we care about is making sure that military professionals maintain control of all nuclear facilities. »
The armed standoff on the road to Moscow, brief as it was, represented the most dramatic power struggle in Russia since the failed 1991 hardline coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the 1993 showdown between Boris Yeltsin and the parliament. Unlike those episodes, however, Washington didn’t have a favorite in the fight. Mr. Prigozhin is no more a friend of the United States than Mr. Putin.
Mr. Biden has responded to the crisis by not responding, opting for caution rather than speaking out, which would risk giving Mr. Putin the ammunition to claim this was a foreign conspiracy, which is often the forefront of the Kremlin’s playbook every whenever internal problems arise. Mr. Biden delayed his departure for Camp David to convene a secure video briefing with top advisers in the Ward Room of the White House – a makeshift Situation Room while the real one is being renovated – and also spoke with leaders from Gran Brittany, France and Germany.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, has canceled a trip to Denmark intended to rally support for Ukraine so he can accompany Mr. Biden at Camp David and instead conducted the scheduled meeting via video. General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also canceled a visit to Israel and Jordan. But beyond reiterating American support for Ukraine, the administration remained silent, letting events unfold as officials studied the intelligence to figure out what was going on.
The administration has been drawing up contingency plans for such a scenario for a long time, but on Saturday it was left scrambling, just like everyone else, to get concrete intelligence from Russia and interpret its meaning, relying heavily on social media and other online sources as well as traditional intelligence resources.
US officials were paying close attention to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, concerned about instability in a country with the power to wipe out most of the planet. But a senior administration official said the government has not detected any changes in Russia’s weapons disposition and has not even changed America’s nuclear stance.
« It’s pretty fast, so it’s hard to know where we’re going to end up, but the two big problems for the US are command and control of nuclear weapons and the implications for Ukrainian efforts to liberate more territory, » said James Goldgeier. , professor of international relations at American University and specialist in Russia.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a longtime Russian intelligence analyst now at the Center for a New American Security, said the United States has limited ability to influence events there and should focus on preventing violence and disorder.
« Washington should avoid stoking deep-seated paranoia within Russia that the United States or NATO will seek to exploit the chaos, » he said. « It will be important to prevent an overreaction in Moscow and in the longer term if the time comes to stabilize relations with a future Russia. »
Whichever way they viewed it, American officials saw the events on the ground as evidence of the erosion of Putin’s position. For months they have been monitoring Mr Prigozhin’s escalating feud with the Defense Ministry leadership over the handling of the war in Ukraine, wondering how others have wondered why Mr Putin has tolerated such open dissent and speculating that the Russian president was secretly encouraging him. for their own political purposes.
But there was little doubt in the White House and national security agencies on Saturday that Prigozhin had done serious harm to Putin. Once a key lieutenant to the Russian president who orchestrated the interference in US elections in 2016, Mr. Prigozhin has publicly debunked Putin’s entire rationale for war, refuting the notion that the invasion was a justified reaction to alleged threats to Russia by Ukraine and NATO.
Furthermore, in his address to the nation as the crisis unfolded on Saturday, Putin compared the situation to 1917, when the last tsarist government collapsed in the midst of a war that was going badly, a comparison that only fueled the image of a Kremlin leader losing his grip on the country. And by making a deal with Prigozhin only hours after threatening to crush him, Putin has reinforced the reality that he no longer has sole control over the use of force on Russian territory.
« One thing is very clear: Putin looks very weak, » said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. But a collapse of Putin’s government, she added, would carry risks. The United States and its allies « should focus on supporting Ukraine while planning for all possible scenarios, including the fall of the Putin regime and its replacement by a far-right faction that will be more brutal and less controlled when it comes to war in Ukraine . »
Even assuming he retains power, politicians fear Putin could become more erratic if he feels cornered. « Weakness breeds riskier behavior on Putin’s part, » said Jon Huntsman Jr., former ambassador to Russia under President Donald J. Trump. « There is a new ripple in Putin’s ‘invincibility’, which will be exploited from every angle. »
For Ukraine, which has been working in tandem with American arms suppliers and intelligence officials to drive the invaders out of its territory, Russia’s internal strife has provided a welcome balm after its long-awaited counteroffensive got off to a slow start.
The Wagner Group mercenary organization led by Mr. Prigozhin had been seen as Russia’s most effective force on the battlefield, but with its charismatic leader headed for apparent exile in Belarus and its troops absorbed by the Russian Defense Ministry, it could no longer be the fierce fighting unit it was.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, Prigozhin’s rebellion ended before the main Russian forces were withdrawn from the front to protect Moscow, according to American information. But US officials expect the discord will fuel doubts already plaguing Russian troops about the purpose of the war and the competence of their leadership. And few believe that Mr. Prigozhin is a spent force who will simply go back to selling hot dogs, as he did as a young man. American officials expect he still has some cards to play.
Indeed, Kurt D. Volker, a former ambassador to NATO and special envoy for Ukraine, has said that Prigozhin’s uprising marks the beginning of the end of the war and Putin’s tenure, even with the deal he short-circuited the march on Moscow.
« Don’t trust the inversion, » he said. “This is positioning. Prigozhin wants to be seen as a hero to the Russians as he sides with more support and makes demands. The state will chase him and this may be his excuse to defend himself « reluctantly ».
As Mr. Volker put it, there will be « a lot more shoes to ditch ».