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Former U.S. ambassador to Russia says aborted Moscow march signals Putin's weakness

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And for more on this, we turn now to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Ambassador, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Sure. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Let me put it this way. What do you think is going on here?

MCFAUL: I don't know. I want to be honest with you. A lot's changed in the last 24 hours. And to say that we know exactly what's going on - I'm not prepared to say that. I'm surprised by a lot of things. I'm surprised that Prigozhin went into Rostov so easily and captured the city with no fighting. I'm surprised that they marched out a couple hundred kilometers outside of Moscow with no fighting. Usually, when there's mutinies are coups, there's been fighting. And now I'm surprised he's gone to Belarus.

DETROW: Yeah.

MCFAUL: I would not have expected that he would go there.

DETROW: What was your response to this news that charges will not be filed? I feel like Vladimir Putin is not somebody who calls somebody a traitor and, a few hours later, says everything's fine.

MCFAUL: Very unusual for Putin. And you're exactly right. Not only did he call him a traitor, he went on national television and told the entire country he was a traitor. And hours later, he allowed his partner, Mr. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to cut a deal to let him go free with no charges. That's extremely unusual for Putin. I think it's a sign of his weakness, that he is not in control of the situation and he's choosing between bad and worse outcomes.

DETROW: So you think, in your mind, there's no question that whatever this possible resolution is, Putin is weaker than he was before it began.

MCFAUL: Yes. I mean, how else can one describe this? These are two Russian armies that, instead of fighting the Ukrainian army, were gearing up to fight each other. Mr. Prigozhin was at least doing a mutiny and maybe a coup, and Putin did not look like he was in control of this situation at all. He talked a really tough game several hours ago when he spoke to the people, but he was rather feckless in his response to this mutiny, this coup. That suggests that he's much weaker today than he was just 24 hours ago.

DETROW: You have been predicting for a long time, along with many others, that that the Ukraine war could endanger Putin's regime, as it's gone so poorly for Russia. Did the specifics of what has happened here - as far as we know what they are right now - did the specifics of this particular threat surprise you?

MCFAUL: Not the specifics in terms of who the actors were. I've been talking about this for a long time, like you said. But I was surprised by how fast Prigozhin could get his forces to seize one of the largest cities in all of Russia...

DETROW: Yeah.

MCFAUL: ...Without a fight. That surprised me.

DETROW: What do you think this means for the war in Ukraine going forward? The Wagner group has played such a big role in it for Russia. I mean, the Kremlin has said that all will be forgiven for the soldiers who participated. But it just seems hard to me to envision marching on your own country, then turning around and rejoining the lines with Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

MCFAUL: I agree with you entirely. I think for morale purposes, this is a disaster for both the Wagner forces that allegedly are now going to join the conventional Russian army but also for the Russian army that are fighting there. I think it's an opportunity, I hope, for the Ukrainians to succeed faster with their counteroffensive. And here I agree with Prigozhin. At one point in one of his missives last night, he described and explained why this war was a mistake and a disaster. And they've been lying to you from the Kremlin. I hope that message gets out to Russian soldiers and to Russian people as well.

DETROW: Does Prigozhin represent a continued threat to Putin at this point?

MCFAUL: Yes. I will be surprised if he just goes to Belarus and retires for the rest of his time. He has become a populist figure. His soldiers were cheered as they left Rostov, and I just cannot imagine that he just fades away. I think he presents a real problem for Putin for the future.

DETROW: And I just want to go back to this point of Putin saying he will not be charged or the Kremlin, rather, announcing he will not be charged - because without speculating too much, there is a clear, very long trend of how Putin responds to political threats. And this does not seem to fit in them.

MCFAUL: You're exactly right. I mean, think about the paradox here. Mr. Kara-Murza, who was just sentenced for 25 years in jail for mildly criticizing the war, yet Prigozhin threatens to overthrow the Russian military, and he doesn't face any charges and goes to Belarus - that is something we have not seen ever in Putin's Russia. And I think it underscores just how weak he is right now.

DETROW: And what are you going to be looking for in the next day or so in terms of getting a sense of this crisis has immediately calmed or it might flare up again? What do you think the key things to keep an eye out are?

MCFAUL: Two or three things. First, it's been alleged that as part of the deal, Prigozhin forced out Gerasimov, General Gerasimov, who's the commander of the Russian armed forces. That has not been confirmed, but that will be very interesting to see if that was true. And second, does Prigozhin, from his new post in Belarus, continue to criticize the Russian armed forces? He's got a big social media presence. Or does he now go silent? And was that part of the deal for him to remain alive and in exile? We don't know the answers to those questions...

DETROW: Do you think he's at risk physically, personally at risk in Belarus?

MCFAUL: Oh, absolutely. I would be very concerned, if I were him, for his health and his safety.

DETROW: How does the - how does what happened over the past 24 hours stack up to you to, you know, the coup attempts of the '90s, the other unrest we've seen over the years. In about 30 seconds, is this going to be a major moment in Putin's presidency?

MCFAUL: Without question, it's the weakest moment of his presidency. It's the strongest threat to him. And it undercuts the image of Putin the great, Putin the powerful, Putin supported by everyone. He's not supported by everyone inside Russia.

DETROW: That's former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCFAUL: Sure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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