“Everything was done to ensure that Russia didn’t see an American hand in all this,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group who first wrote about the backchannel conversation in his weekly client newsletter. “From a U.S. perspective, that was actually quite useful, being able to communicate to Moscow that America’s policy is to defend Ukraine and help them get their land back but that it’s not regime change or destroying Russia.”
An administration official confirmed the backchanneling with Moscow to West Wing Playbook, emphasizing that such open channels are routinely used when officials on either side have important messages to convey. While Prigozhin’s troops were marching through Rostov in southern Russia and on toward Moscow, the State Department urged all diplomatic personnel against leaving their diplomatic compounds, a move the U.S. official said was purely precautionary and not a reaction to any specific threat.
And Biden, in his conversations with other NATO leaders this weekend, sought agreement that the West would be best 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 ground and the annual meeting of NATO leaders just weeks away, senior U.S. officials are still trying to figure out what happened over the weekend in addition to gleaning clues from Putin’s response.
One area of examination: why Putin cut a deal with Prigozhin, a rarity for the Russian dictator. The aborted mutiny appeared to reveal cracks within the Kremlin and military hierarchy, and the U.S. is waiting to see if Putin will, for lack of a better term, purge the problems. Some analysts have speculated that Putin’s relative restraint so far may be a sign of a deeper rationality, while others worry a weakened Putin could turn more desperate and reckless.
Biden said Tuesday that “it’s hard to tell” whether Putin was dramatically weakened by the plot, expressing the generally cautious view of his national security team. But U.S. officials suspect that one motivation for Putin making the deal was to avoid widespread violence on Russian soil.
That has led some to wonder if they could push the envelope further in supplying Ukraine with more lethal, longer-range weapons — including F-16s. Their thought: Putin’s red line might be softer than anticipated and he might choose not to escalate for fear of widening the conflict, according to two people familiar with the deliberations. But they cautioned 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” about whether the chaos inside Russia’s military could boost Ukraine’s counter-offensive. But, he added, U.S. officials were still waiting to see how things play out.
The cost on the Russian people is also going to increase, analysts believe. If the Wagner Group is sidelined, Putin loses a group of mercenaries on which he could lean. Putin may now need to turn to more conscripted civilians, risking discontent at home.
The fragility of Putin’s regime also has some U.S. officials contemplating more seriously the possibility of a post-Putin Russia — and a nuclear stockpile controlled by a leader who could be even more destabilizing to the global order.
In the short term, it’s clear that the NATO summit being held in two weeks in Lithuania will take on new urgency. Blinken teased a “robust package for Ukraine” to be unveiled by NATO leaders in Vilnius. But it’s also possible that calculations within the alliance about Ukraine’s eventual accession could be changing given Russia’s military weakness and the very real prospect of a civil war within its borders.
“It’s still a high bar [for Ukraine’s potential NATO membership] because all 31 [NATO] countries have to say yes,” Bremmer said. “But this will help. The West now has less reason to worry about Putin’s supposed red lines, and all the more reason to worry about how to prepare for a destabilized, unpredictable situation in Russia.”