US officials see weakened Putin as tumult in Russia reveals ‘cracks’

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The unprecedented challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin by Wagner Group fighters has exposed “cracks” in the strength of his leadership that could take weeks or months to play out, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, as Russia’s ally China says it supports Moscow in “protecting national stability”.

In a series of televised interviews, Blinken and members of the US Congress said Saturday’s unrest in Russia has weakened Putin in a way that could help Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russian forces on its territory, while it threatens Russia’s neighbours. including Poland and the Baltic States, would benefit.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last company,” Blinken said on ABC’s This Week news program after an aborted mutiny by troops led by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Blinken said tensions leading to the action had been building for months and added that the threat of “internal affairs” could erode Moscow’s military capabilities in Ukraine.

“We have seen more cracks appearing in the Russian facade. It’s too early to say exactly where they’re going and when they’ll get there. But we certainly have all kinds of new questions that Putin will have to answer in the coming weeks and months,” Blinken said.

US officials expect to learn more about events in Russia soon, including details of the deal with Prigozhin, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, that saw Wagner fighters return to their bases.

Forces led by Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and ex-convict, have fought the bloodiest battles in Russia’s 16-month war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, China – which has maintained close ties with Putin since the operation began in Ukraine – called the uprising an “internal matter” and expressed support for Putin’s government.

This came after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday.

According to Al Jazeera’s Yulia Shapovalova, Russians continue to support Putin because “he controlled the situation”, but “many admit that the mutiny dealt a blow to President Putin’s reputation”.

Others say that Prigozhin is clearly a player in Vladimir Putin’s political system and that everything he has – the funds, human resources, all the weapons – everything comes from the state and that he is completely dependent on Vladimir Putin, despite his rivalry with the defense ministry,” Shapovalova said from Moscow.

‘Distracted and Divided’

According to The Washington Post and the New York Times, U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up signs days ago that Prigozhin was preparing his troops for mutiny as officials held briefings at the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about the possibility of unrest in a full-scale day before Prigozhin took his action against the Russian military leadership.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner said Putin’s future actions in Ukraine could be hampered by Prigozhin’s claim that the rationale for the invasion of Ukraine was based on lies.

“If you take away the premise, it becomes much harder for Putin to continue to turn to the Russian people and say, ‘We have to keep sending people to die,'” Turner told CBS’s Face the Nation program.

Retired US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, former head of the US European command, said the unrest showed an impairment of Russian capabilities.

“One of the results, I think, of the last 36 hours, maybe 48 hours, is that the institutions that we’ve long considered very safe in Russia are slowly unraveling,” Breedlove said in an interview. “The whole institution of the army now, the appearance of what the Russian army is, is much reduced.”

US Senator Ben Cardin said the weekend’s turmoil in Russia does not ease Washington’s need to continue helping Ukraine launch its long-awaited counter-offensive against Russia.

“This is a critical time for Ukraine. This counteroffensive will determine where we stand for the next two years,” Cardin, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he discussed the weekend’s turmoil in a “positive and inspiring” phone call with US President Joe Biden and that the events had exposed the weakness of Putin’s regime.

In a statement, Zelenskyy called for global pressure on Russia and said he and Biden had also discussed expanding defense cooperation further with an emphasis on long-range weapons.

Zelenskyy and Biden discussed Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, according to a White House statement.

“President Biden reaffirmed the continued support of the US, including through continued security, economic and humanitarian assistance,” the statement said.



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