Prigozhin revolt raised fears of Putin’s toppling – and a nuclear Russia in chaos

As national security scholar Gregory F. Treverton says, the brief mutiny mounted by Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, may be over, but the dramatic events sparked by that mutiny are “still unfolding.” In this interview with The Conversation U.S. democracy editor Naomi Schalit, Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration, points out that the U.S. response to the incident was superficially simple – essentially “We have nothing to do with this” – but fundamentally more complex.

What did you think at first when you heard about this action taken by Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenary soldiers?

My first thought was, “Why is Prigozhin taking this huge risk?” We knew that he’d been critical of the Russian military and was getting away with it in ways that none of us quite expected. But to go this far, take the next step, even if he said that this was not aimed at Putin but only aimed at the generals – is this ambition run amok? Or was it fear? Desperation?

When Prigozhin agreed to go to Belarus and his soldiers backed off, did you think that was the end of it?

My response was, “That can’t be the end.” Maybe it means the demobilization of Wagner. And maybe the end of Wagner. If you’re looking at this from Putin’s perspective, you’d say, well, this guy Progozhin got too big for his boots. He was helpful to Russia – not just in Ukraine, but in Africa. He’s now overstepped the line and therefore needs to be disciplined. But this is still a play unfolding. And, you know, if I were Progozhin, I’d be scared to death about possible attacks on my life.

A balding man in a suit and tie looking skeptical and disturbed. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group leader now in exile in Belarus. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

What’s the US attitude been toward Putin?

Putin was the first world leader to call George W. Bush on 9/11. And there was a period in the late 1990s when the two countries were still working together to denuclearize the Soviet republics. That sort of cooperation existed until about 2000. By 2007, Putin was already talking about how NATO was trying to encircle Russia and was a threat to Russia.

When I was in the Obama administration, many of my senior colleagues were palpably negative about Putin. I kept having to gently remind them, “Yes, he may be a liar, a thief and a cheat. But we dealt with those kinds of people earlier, in the Soviet Union, and didn’t blow up the world. So no matter what he is, we need to deal with it.”

What struck me when I was running the National Intelligence Council was how isolated Putin was. He hardly ever came to the Kremlin, stayed in one of his dachas outside Moscow. He had a lifestyle that most of us would envy. He didn’t do anything much besides exercise and read till 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Then he’d see a few people.

But he was very isolated in the pandemic, and more and more isolated by now. The U.S. now finds itself in circumstances where basically everybody around Putin owes their career to him. And that makes you worry about the advice he gets – that’s not someone to whom you can deliver bad news.

So he was initially someone the U.S. could work with. He then got more difficult as he worried that the U.S. was trying to back him into a corner with NATO. And now, we’re not even sure if the information on which he bases his actions is reliable. That sounds like someone that the U.S. would worry about and not want to have in power.

Somebody who’s that isolated, perhaps that detached from reality – that’s very dangerous in this world of nuclear weapons. Ideally, the U.S. would like somebody else.

For the past 20 years, Putin’s made his power more absolute. In the process, he has not done the thing the U.S. hoped he would do, which was begin to renovate the Russian economy, which is still in terrible shape. It plugs along only because oil prices have been pretty high. This isn’t where the U.S. hoped it would be with Russia at this point in history.

During that three-day period that Putin called a “mutiny” by Prigozhin and his troops, I would imagine that there was a strange situation in terms of how the U.S. was thinking about Putin: We don’t like him. He really does have to go, but we don’t want him to go this way, because it’s too scary.

On the one hand, having Putin remain in power through this Prigozhin affair was probably better than the chaos that might have ensued if Putin had been ousted. On the other hand, in the long run, the U.S. seems to have moved to the position over the Ukraine war where we basically say, Putin can’t win. It has to be clear that Putin did not win, that he lost. And in some sense, without saying it, this means Putin has to go.

The administration made clear that the U.S. government had nothing to do this. This was entirely a Russian affair. We weren’t seeking to benefit from it. We weren’t trying to foment it. Indeed, there seem to have been back-channel communications with Russia, reassuring them that we weren’t involved, that we weren’t seeking regime change or the country’s destruction.

A large street and sidewalk barred by barricades, with onion-domed buildings in the background. A police officer stands on guard at the closed Red Square in Moscow on the morning of June 24, 2023, as Wagner mercenaries advanced toward the city. Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

What was the fear here in the U.S. if Putin were to have been deposed?

If Russia is ever going to make peace in the Ukraine war, it isn’t going to be Putin who does it – he is so dug in with his objectives. There is no way he could make an agreement. So on the one hand, if Prigozhin had been successful, maybe there would have been some way to think about this war being wound down, some armistice, some freezing of conflict at least, maybe even an agreement on a cease-fire. So that would have been positive.

The concern obviously was, you’ve got real chaos in Russia. Is that something the U.S. would really want? The U.S. would like Putin and Russia to behave better. On the other hand, we don’t want Russia to become a kind of lawless space to the east of Europe with nuclear weapons. The idea that you have a country coming apart, with the lawlessness of warlords, and all that in the presence of nuclear weapons – that seems to me to be one that does keep you up at night.

I’ve thought for a long time that this war is going to be bad for Russia, no matter how it ends.

Their military manpower is depleted, and if the Wagner group disbands, that will build still more pressure to conscript. Not only has Russia lost people on the battlefield and used up supplies it can’t easily replace, lots of talented people have emigrated, and their economy has been sanctioned. So this has been a pretty bad period for the country. And it’s not going to get any better.

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