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Moscow ‘reaps what it sows’: NATO members scramble to assess chaos unfolding in Russia

Moscow ‘reaps what it sows’: NATO members scramble to assess chaos unfolding in Russia

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POLITICO spoke with seven officials from NATO countries, all of whom were granted anonymity to speak candidly about rapidly unfolding events. Many noted the need to stay focused on Ukraine even as Russia dominates the world’s attention.

“We are expecting the situation to escalate there, but our main focus remains on helping Ukraine and ensuring their victory,” one Eastern European diplomat said, before Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin announced he was turning his troops around.

The shocking takeover early Saturday of the southern Russian city of Rostov by Prigozhin’s fighters had set the stage for a larger military clash between his battle-hardened forces and the Russian military, which has not shown up in force as of Saturday.

Russian helicopters on Saturday appeared to have bombarded the southern city of Voronezh in an attempt to halt Prigozhin’s troops pressing north toward Moscow, in the most significant threat to President Vladimir Putin’s nearly 25-year rule.

No NATO government official contacted over the past day was willing to offer a deep assessment of the crisis, as the first meetings were taking place throughout Saturday to share intelligence and plan any responses. A spokesperson for NATO said simply “we are monitoring the situation.”

Asked about possible implications of the chaos in Russia, a senior NATO official said it is “too early to say.” Two European officials affirmed that more clarity on the situation is needed before making a definitive assessment.

A second senior diplomat from eastern Europe said Saturday they “believe it is clearer now that we are looking to an internal feud which weakens the regime in Moscow no matter the outcome.”

Ukrainians, this diplomat added, “need to focus on what they are set to do — the counteroffensive.”

“Any additional external or internal dilemma for Russia is a help for Ukraine,” said another European official.

Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, the chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, said he held a phone call with U.S. Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley.

“We discussed in detail the situation along the entire frontline,” Zaluzhnyy posted on Facebook. “I told him about the offensive and offensive actions of our units. I informed him that the operation is going in accordance with the plan.

“I also told him about the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in certain types of weapons and demining assets,” he added. “We agreed to keep in touch and to cooperate actively.”

Nausėda, the Lithuanian president, noted that leaders attending next month’s NATO meeting in Vilnius will need to stay nimble as the situation progresses.

“The NATO Vilnius Summit will evaluate new circumstances,” the Lithuanian leader wrote, adding that “the complex security situation calls for additional measures” and “we must get ready for any scenario!”

Others in the region were also blunt about potential changes in the political landscape.

“After Putin’s short address, it seems to be clear, that the situation is serious for Kremlin and there is a high probability of escalation in Russia,” tweeted Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, before Prigozhin announced he was standing down.

A Western intelligence official familiar with the issue said the initial attacks on Russian positions were a surprise because “no one thought [Prigozhin] would actually engage with the Russian army on Russian territory,” adding that the move is “treason. So he has to be all in now. And he doesn’t seem powerful enough for that.”

The stakes are high not only for Putin and his regime, but also for the warlord himself who likely planned this operation for some time. Thousands of his fighters have been freed from their months-long battle in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and have rested and refitted after the brutal fighting in the now-destroyed city that is in Russian hands.

Alexander Ward contributed to this report.

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