Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said on Sunday the world was seeing “rifts appearing” in Vladimir Putin’s Russia as mercenary troops attempted an insurgency over the weekend amid the country’s ongoing war with Ukraine.
After calling for an armed uprising to overthrow Russia’s defense minister, Wagner Group troops and their far-right leader Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to seize control of Russia’s military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which oversees fighting in Ukraine .
On Saturday, troops then began advancing towards Moscow but were able to halt thanks to a Kremlin agreement to send Prigozhin to neighboring pro-Russian Belarus. The Kremlin said charges of attempted armed insurgency would be dropped, and Prigozhin ordered his fighters to return to their camps.
Though the revolt was short-lived, Blinken and analysts say the move by Putin’s former protégé could have long-term ramifications for the invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s decades-long rule.
“I’m guessing it’s a moving film and we haven’t seen the final act yet. But we can say that,” the Secretary of State told CNN’s State of the Union. “First of all, what we have seen is extraordinary. And I think you saw cracks that weren’t there before: First, when Prigozhin brought to the fore the argument that Ukraine or NATO somehow posed a threat to Russia — and in doing so, the very premises of Russian aggression against questioned Ukraine And a direct challenge to Putin himself.”
Wagner fighters were extremely important in the Ukraine War, capturing the eastern town of Bakhmut which had seen some of the bloodiest and longest battles of the war. Prigozhin, a former convict, has a long association with the Russian president and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” for securing lucrative catering deals in the Kremlin.
Prigozhin claimed his uprising began because Russian troops had attacked Wagner camps in Ukraine – which Moscow has denied. However, according to the Associated Press and CNN, the US had intelligence that suggested the mercenary leader had been building his troops near the Russian border for some time.
Moscow prepared for the arrival of Wagner fighters over the weekend by setting up checkpoints on the city’s southern border and reportedly withdrawing thousands of Chechen soldiers from fighting in Ukraine. By Sunday, troops had withdrawn from the capital.
“Think of it this way: 16 months ago, Russian forces stood on the doorstep of Kiev, Ukraine, thinking they would take the city in a matter of days and wipe the country off the map,” Blinken said. “Now they must focus on defending Moscow, the capital of Russia, against Putin’s own mercenaries. So that raises a lot of deep questions that I believe will be answered in the coming days and weeks.”