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What's at stake in the standoff between Putin and the Wagner group

MILES PARKS, HOST:

The coming hours will be critical for Russia. The extraordinary standoff between the Russian president and the head of the Wagner Group threatens to engulf the country in chaos. Joining us now to talk through this is Sam Greene, professor of Russian politics at King's College London. Thank you so much, Sam, for being here.

SAM GREENE: Thank you for the invitation.

PARKS: Let's start with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, which is essentially a private mercenary group. What do you think his play is here? What is he trying to achieve?

GREENE: It is hard to understand how Prigozhin thought this was going to play out. This seems like a tremendous set of risks that he has taken. I think it's possible that he allowed himself to believe that he'd become so indispensable to this system because of what he does in the war and other things that he does for the Russian system that really the Kremlin would have no choice but to negotiate with him.

He's certainly gotten that wrong. He's been accused by the president on television of treason. He's been charged by the security services with mutiny. And he now faces a very bleak future. He may still be calculating, though, that the Kremlin will be unwilling to risk a shooting war, and thus there will have to be some kind of a negotiated settlement between himself and the regime.

PARKS: Right. I mean, this seems kind of crazy on its face - the idea that a private group could take on an entire country's military. Is there any way possible that this effort is successful?

GREENE: It's very hard to see how Prigozhin and his private army really could be successful against the full might of the Russian state, right? That's not just the military, but it's the entire paramilitary and police forces and special police forces that are designed to deal with exactly this kind of thing. I think the only way that he comes out of this alive, frankly, is if the Kremlin comes to the conclusion that it cannot risk the optics and the political consequences of going to war essentially on its own territory against men who have been fighting for Russia on the front lines in Ukraine.

PARKS: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what Prigozhin's role has been previously, especially in the war in Ukraine?

GREENE: Well, Prigozhin has made a reputation and really a role for himself in the Russian system in terms of solving the kinds of problems that the Russian state doesn't want to solve on its own. So they've sent Wagner into hotspots in Syria, Africa, Libya, other parts of the world where the Russian state didn't want to get involved directly or not as directly as it needed to. They've played a very important role in some of the toughest fights around places like Bakhmut, Soledar and others. He also runs a whole bunch of other operations, including sort of influence operations, online troll farms, disinformation campaigns.

PARKS: So as this standoff is evolving, what do you think is going through President Vladimir Putin's head here?

GREENE: Well, I think he finds himself in a somewhat difficult position. This has already been damaging - right? - to see somebody who believes that they can stand up and claim to remove the minister of defense - right? - Putin's appointed minister of defense. That is, in a very real sense, a political challenge to the president. It essentially says that the president is not in charge. To then be able to occupy a major city in Rostov in the south of the country and take it out of military control to sow chaos, really, including in the capital city itself, in Moscow - this makes Putin look weak. The only way that I think he can remedy that is with some kind of decisive action that takes Prigozhin out of commission, either puts him in jail or in a box, frankly.

But again, there's risks involved with that, and Putin will be aware of that - right? - that most people who have supported the war have supported Wagner and have been, in fact, proud of what Wagner and Prigozhin's soldiers have achieved or tried to achieve in the war. And they may not be happy seeing Russian regular troops open fire on, again, men who have fought for the war that Putin has said is so existentially critical for Russia itself. So there really are no great options for Putin in this situation.

PARKS: Can I just ask, as somebody who studies Russian politics, how shocked were you to see the developments of the last few hours?

GREENE: I think, you know, my colleagues and I have learned to be shocked but not surprised, if that makes any sense. Since this war began, this wasn't a war that makes sense, much as this effort by Prigozhin doesn't make a lot of sense. But we're learning to accommodate the fact that people can make bad decisions, people can be guided by poor analysis, by rashness, by emotion, often with catastrophic consequences. That's often the nature of these sorts of political systems that make everything so high-stakes that people are incentivized to take these massive risks.

PARKS: That's Sam Greene, professor of Russian politics and also director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Thank you so much for being with us.

GREENE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.