March 5, 2024

Putin is weakened by buying time but he will take revenge on the leader of the insurgency: the head of the CIA

Last month’s uprising in Russia damaged President Vladimir Putin’s positive image as a strong ruler, and he is likely to seek retribution against the man who led the uprising, CIA Director William Burns said Thursday.

The uprising by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group paramilitary showed “significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built,” and the country’s security services, military and decision-makers appear to have been “in limbo” for 36 hours, Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

The uprising on June 23-24 was a threat to the picture that Putin tried to paint of himself as the “arbiter of order” in Russia, Burns said. Instead, for a short time, Wagner’s forces were advancing towards Moscow without resistance.

For Russians accustomed to seeing Putin in charge, “the question was ‘Doesn’t the emperor have any clothes?’ or at least ‘Why is he taking so long to get dressed?’” Burns said.

For Moscow’s elite, the incident raised questions raised by the invasion of Ukraine “about Putin’s judgment, his relative detachment from events and his indecisiveness”.

“The most significant thing that happened that day was that Putin was forced to cut a deal with his former caterer,” a reference to Prigozhin’s earlier career as a caterer at public school and Kremlin events, Burns said, referring to the ambiguous arrangement designed to absorb Wagner’s forces into the Russian military.

The uprising was the most direct attack on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power,” Burns added.

Now, Putin is waiting, “trying to buy time while he thinks about what to do with Wagner and what to do with Prigozhin himself. Putin, in my experience, hates the image of him overreacting,” Burns said. “He’s trying to fix things.”

Putin will likely want to phase out Prigozhin but keep the Wagner outfit, as he sees the paramilitaries as a useful tool, including in Africa and the Middle East, Burns said.

“What he is going to try to do is separate Prigozhin and cut him short but preserve what is precious to him,” he said.

But as “the ultimate apostle of payback,” Putin will surely go after Prigozhin when the time is ripe, said Burns, a former career diplomat and ambassador to Russia.

“I’d be surprised if Prigozhin gets away with extra compensation from this,” Burns said, adding, “If I were Prigozhin I wouldn’t set my taste buds on fire.”

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