Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the U.S. has seen "more cracks emerge in the Russian facade" after mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin posed a "direct challenge to Putin's authority" in his rebellion against Moscow's military.
After an armed revolt against Russia that lasted less than 36 hours, Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, which had long been at odds with Vladimir Putin's military forces, ordered his troops Saturday to turn back from their march on Moscow, abandoning their rebellion to avoid bloodshed.
In an interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Blinken said that “what we’ve seen is Russia having to defend Moscow, its capital, against mercenaries of its own making," adding that "in and of itself, that’s extraordinary.”
"We've also seen rise to the surface profound questions about the very premises for this Russian aggression against Ukraine that Prigozhin surfaced very publicly, as well as a direct challenge to Putin's authority," he said.
He added: “So I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go and when they get there, but certainly we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.”
Prigozhin took his long-standing feud with Russian military leaders to a new level Friday and ordered his troops to turn on the forces they had been fighting alongside in Ukraine. The uprising ended Saturday, with Prigozhin agreeing to a deal that involved his moving to Belarus.
U.S. intelligence agencies collected information that Prigozhin had been planning a challenge to Russia’s senior military leaders and briefed congressional leaders about it last week, a source familiar with the matter said.
U.S. spy agencies observed the Wagner Group amassing forces and weapons — and detected other indications that Prigozhin was poised to make a move — the source said, although the intelligence wasn’t definitive.
Tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian Defense Ministry were no secret, but escalatory signs had “increased significantly” in the past few weeks, a U.S. official said.
Senior Biden administration officials were briefed on intelligence indicating Prigozhin was considering a challenge last Wednesday, the official said, and “alarm bells” started going off more intensely early Friday.
Pressed by NBC News' Chuck Todd about reports that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped broker a deal between Prigozhin and Putin to end the rebellion, Blinken stressed that it's important not to speculate on the details and signaled that more information about the agreement will trickle out in the coming days and weeks.
“It may be that Putin didn’t want to debase himself to the level of negotiating directly with Prigozhin,” he said. “So it was useful to get someone like Lukashenko into this on his behalf.”
Putin has accused Prigozhin of “treason” and vowed to take down the Wagner rebellion, which he called a “stab in the back” of Moscow’s troops.
After Prigozhin ordered his forces to turn back from their march on Moscow, the Kremlin said he would leave Russia for its neighboring ally Belarus and that he, as well as Wagner fighters, would avoid prosecution.