President Biden on Wednesday said Russian President Vladimir Putin “absolutely” had been weakened by the short-lived uprising of the Wagner Group. But, Biden added, it’s unclear what that means for Putin’s grip on power as his war with Ukraine grinds on.
“It’s hard to tell really. He’s clearly losing the Iraq war,” Biden said, mixing up the word Iraq for Ukraine. “He’s losing the war at home and he has become a bit of a pariah around the world.”
Biden’s comments, made as he walked toward the Marine One helicopter to start a trip to Chicago for a speech highlighting his economic efforts, marked a departure from his deliberate and careful approach over the past few days to the unrest in Russia.
As Putin faced a deadly rebellion from his own mercenary forces, it may have been tempting for an American President to gloat. But until Wednesday, Biden had bent over backwards to stay out of it, and worked to be sure key Western allies stayed out of it too.
Biden was concerned that cheering on the unrest inside Russia would give Putin an opening to blame the U.S. for the privately-run Wagner Group turning on Russia’s formal military forces.
As reports came out on Saturday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s leader, had turned on the Russian military and was marching north with his mercenary forces toward Russia,, Biden pushed off a planned helicopter flight to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains and stayed in the White House, where he convened calls with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom. The message: Don’t give Putin an opening to blame outside forces for the internal mess.
Biden’s national security team was concerned that the U.S. and its allies could overstate the threat to Putin’s hold on power, said a White House official. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, canceled a scheduled trip to Copenhagen for a conference with Ukraine, and instead traveled to Camp David with Biden on Saturday afternoon to keep the President updated on events in Russia.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” Biden said Monday afternoon in the White House. Allied leaders ”agreed with me that we had to make sure we gave Putin no excuse — let me emphasize — we gave Putin no excuse to blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO,” Biden said.
The measured response to Russia’s instability is a strategy that takes a page from George H. W. Bush’s careful approach to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ever mindful of the dangers that unrest and a power vacuum would pose in nuclear-armed Russia.
“The U.S. Administration probably took the smartest approach here because I think there’s no doubt that this seems to be an internal issue, and I think it’s pretty clear it was not even a coup,” Molly Dunigan, an expert at the non-profit RAND Corporation who has researched the role of private militaries in conflicts. “This was what one of my colleagues has called ‘a contract renegotiation gone wrong’.”
Dunigan’s research has found that when private military forces are deployed alongside regular armies, “a whole host of frictions” emerge, Dunigan says. “It can really negatively impact your military effectiveness over time because there’s all this tension that erupts and lots of resentment between the forces.”
Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive against Russian military positions holding large swaths of eastern Ukraine has moved more slowly than expected, as Ukrainian forces probe for weakness in Russia’s frontline defenses. White House officials are watching to see if the Wagner Group’s mutiny created enough disarray in the Russian military command to weaken Russia’s ability to repel additional Ukrainian advances.
“One part of Biden’s wisdom was not to rush before it was clear what was going on,” says Konstantin Sonin, a professor at University of Chicago with expertise in Russian political and economic issues. The biggest impact of the revolt may be felt on the front lines in Ukraine. “The main thing is that this was good for Ukraine and Ukraine armed forces,” Sonin says.
The Biden administration on Tuesday announced $500 million in new security assistance for Ukraine. That package includes more Patriot missiles for defending Ukraine cities and military installations from Russian air attacks, shoulder-fired Stinger missiles and HIMARS ammunition for downing Russian aircraft, shoulder fired Javelin missiles for destroying tanks, 30 Bradley armored fighting vehicles, 25 Stryker armored personnel carriers, and additional equipment for clearing mines.
Biden spoke to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky from Camp David on Sunday. The two leaders discussed the Wagner Group’s assault on Russian forces and Ukraine’s ongoing counter-offensive operations. Biden said on Monday that he told Zelensky “that no matter what happened in Russia — let me say it again: No matter what happened in Russia, we, the United States, would continue to support Ukraine’s defense and its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.”
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