In the hours before the dramatic turnaround, when mercenaries appeared to be planning urban combat in Moscow, US officials engaged in multiple inter-agency meetings on Friday evening and Saturday morning to assess its potential impact. They came to a preliminary consensus that the insurrection of the Wagner mercenary group would attract the attention of the Kremlin. This would provide Ukraine with a much-needed opportunity to turn the tide of its flimsy counter-offensive.
The Biden administration had yet to come up with a formal assessment, and officials then warned it was too early for firm conclusions.
« I don’t see how it could hurt them, » said one of the senior administration officials. Others said he probably would have helped, especially since Wagner passed the headquarters of the Southern Military District, the epicenter of Russia’s operational management for the invasion.
Officials, who were granted permission to speak anonymously about Vladimir Putin’s biggest challenge in more than 20 years, said they were following Wagner’s forces to Rostov and were now heading north towards the Russian capital. . The local governor of the Lipetsk region, about six hours from Moscow, said Wagner’s troops crossed the oblast in armored vehicles on Saturday morning. Russian military bloggers have indicated that a Wagner advance has reached the Moscow region.
Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy admitted his country’s counteroffensive has not gone according to plan as Russian airpower and dormant mines have stalled Kiev’s advance on multiple fronts. The Biden administration feared that a lack of clear success ahead of next month’s NATO summit would erode alliance unity and complicate the policy of continued support for Ukraine. But Prigozhin’s game could change the calculation.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were briefed Saturday by cabinet-level officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines — about the progress of the Wagner group before Prigozhin’s retreat.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, General Valery Zaluzhnyy on Saturday.
“I told him about the offensive and offensive actions of our units,” Zaluzhnyy said, according to one reading of the conversation. « I have informed him that the operation is going according to plan. »
Biden also spoke Saturday about the situation in Russia with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom.
Additionally, Blinken chatted with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Ukraine remains focused on achieving the objectives of its counteroffensive on Ukrainian territory with the firm support of our American allies,” Kuleba said in a tweet on Saturday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to speak with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov later on Saturday.
A US official said the calls to European counterparts are centered around an effort to « reassure » them and also reinforce the need for neutral messages. « No one should beat football. »
The general agreement on the calls between the US and its European allies is that Kiev now has an unprecedented opportunity to advance as a key mercenary force shifts its focus from holding Ukrainian positions to attacking points inside Russia.
Biden was supposed to go to Camp David on Saturday – which has resources with which to monitor the evolution of the situation – but his departure for the presidential retreat in the woods of Maryland was delayed until early Saturday afternoon.
Even if Putin puts down the rebellion, he could occupy the resources of the Russian military and would likely eliminate the use of the Wagner Group at the front, where it had proven successful against Ukrainian forces.
“The cracks in Putin’s regime are now wide and bright. The Kremlin must put down Prigozhin’s rebellion by force or it threatens the legitimacy of the regime, » said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the military bloc was « monitoring the situation ». One of the first complications for NATO is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, a NATO ally, has already pledged « full support » to him in a phone call with Putin on Saturday.
But open rebellion — and the ease with which Wagner seized the military command center in Rostov, where the Kremlin controls its war against Ukraine — also showed clearly the weakness of the Russian military.
Officials warned that events in the following hours and days were difficult to predict, as evidenced by the Lukashenko-brokered deal, from Putin swiftly putting down the insurgency to his grip on power slipping, while the myth of his total control about Russia shatters in real time. Administration data said it could not confirm Putin’s whereabouts.
And while US officials currently believe Putin will remain in charge, there is a quiet fear within the administration that the Russian leader may pursue the most catastrophic options available to him if he senses a challenge to his power.
No one in the White House would miss Putin, but there’s no evidence that Prigozhin – or at least someone aligned with him – would be any less of a threat. Any kind of turmoil or coup in the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal would be an inherently deep concern, officials said.
« This kind of instability is dangerous no matter what the outcome, » said a US official.
Paul McLeary and Myah Ward contributed to this report.