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There's instability in Russia's military leadership. What does that mean for Putin?


The short mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group in Russia is over for now. But in its wake, there are signs of discord in Russia's military. A report from The New York Times says that a senior Russian general knew of Yevgeny Prigozhin's plans to stage his rebellion, according to U.S. officials. So how much did that march toward Moscow, led by a one-time ally, hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin's strongman image? To understand this, I called up John Sipher, who once ran Russia operations for the CIA and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center.

JOHN SIPHER: There's a sense of dysfunction in the military in Ukraine, but what this does is it adds a sense of dysfunction and incompetence domestically. You know, if he lets Prigozhin go, he looks weak. You know, one minute he's calling him a scum traitor, and Prigozhin shot down Russian helicopters. The next minute he's gone. But if he tries to kill Prigozhin, that's dangerous, too, 'cause Prigozhin has shown himself to have some real populist appeal. He has this strong narrative that the Russian leaders are fat cats with yachts and children in Europe, and they're sending Russian boys to be slaughtered in Ukraine. So Putin has to worry that, you know, if he kills him, there's a lot of people who buy into that strong narrative. And stability in Russia is a concern. Like, they have a massive number of nuclear weapons, among other problems.

FADEL: What do you think Prigozhin's fate is when he is such a threat to Putin?

SIPHER: Prigozhin doesn't come out a winner in this either, as, you know, he was trying to actually strengthen Wagner in the system, and it looks like he's weakened it. It looks like he was hoping people would rally to him, and they didn't. But this is also part of the problem of Putin creating this system where they repress and oppress the people so that they hold off any kind of protest. Regimes that rule by fear, they live in fear. They fear that the people aren't going to support them when push comes to shove.

FADEL: Prigozhin, what do you think his calculations were? Was it a way to protect himself?

SIPHER: These people are essentially mob bosses, and they're not necessarily the smartest folks around. A dictator doesn't want to keep the best and brightest around 'cause they're a threat. And so he needs people that he can control and are weak. So Prigozhin was, essentially, a low-level thug from Saint Petersburg, and, you know, he was in prison for, like, 10 years in the '80s. And Putin created him to do things for him, but it got to the point where, I think, Prigozhin saw that his influence and power was being pulled away, and he lashed out in this way.

FADEL: It does seem like U.S. intelligence has been pretty consistently accurate on Russia military movements. And, apparently, reportedly, they knew that this was a possibility a couple of days before it actually happened. So it seems like the U.S. has pretty good intelligence on the Russian military right now. Is that a - your impression as well?

SIPHER: Yeah. I think that's true. And in some ways, Prigozhin's views have been in public sight for all of us to watch. It's just a matter of watching to see if there's movement among his troops. I think we have pretty good insight, and we get a lot of benefit from our cooperation with Ukraine because they lived in the Soviet Union. They understand Russians. And I think we're listening more to those folks that have been in and around Russia because they've been getting this kind of disinformation and cyberattacks and all the kind of stuff that the KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, has been doing to us for years and years. And we often didn't pay attention.

FADEL: When you're watching this, what is it that most concerns you as you look forward because it sounds like you don't think this is over?

SIPHER: I think there's been incompetence and dysfunction in Ukraine. Now there - we see incompetence, weakness and dysfunction at home. Vladimir Putin sees Russia as himself. And so he sees threats to himself as threats to Russia. And that's the dangerous thing here. Even in the Soviet Union, there was a politburo. There's others. If the leader got out of hand, there was a way of sort of a communal group coming together to make decisions. Here, a lot of it's just in Vladimir Putin's head. It is a danger here. I think it's a longer-term danger. He has to worry about the loyalty of folks around him now. He's sort of a cornered rat, if you will.

FADEL: John Sipher, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and a foreign policy intelligence and national security expert. Thank you for your time.

SIPHER: My pleasure. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.