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The short-lived Wagner group rebellion has permanently damaged Putin's reputation


Shortly after Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group took a southern Russian city, President Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian nation. He called Wagner's actions treasonous. But the audacious advance on Moscow made the Russian leader look weak and undermined his seemingly firm grip on power. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is here to talk about how the events of the past couple days reflect on Vladimir Putin's leadership of Russia. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So how exposed is Putin's leadership after the events of the past 48 hours?

NORTHAM: Well, this was one of the greatest threats to Putin's rule since he took over 23 years ago - you know, to have a mercenary group he backed turn against the Russian state and having it played out in plain view of the world. I spoke with Michael McFaul, and he's a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He says Prigozhin's operation appeared to be well-organized, not spontaneous, and he may have had help from within the Russian government. McFaul says it could also be seen as a failure of Putin's intelligence services. And not only that, Putin may have, over the past few months, just given Prigozhin too long a leash. Here's McFaul.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Prigozhin and Putin have worked together for years, if not decades. It's not like he doesn't know who he is. I just think he never imagined that he would turn against him. And so I think he underestimated this threat.

NORTHAM: You know, McFaul says at one point there were Wagner mercenaries squaring up against the Russian military when they're supposed to be fighting side by side against Ukraine's armed forces. And, you know, it sent out a bad signal that Putin may not be fully in control.

RASCOE: So, I mean, there - here's the question that everyone is going to be wondering about now. Could this spell the beginning of the end for Putin?

NORTHAM: None of the Russian analysts I've talked with believe that will happen immediately. You know, Russia under Putin has gone through some threats over the years. Just think, over the past two years since he started the war in Ukraine, Russia is under a crushing sanctions regime. It's turned into a pariah state, especially in the West, not to mention the degradation of the Russian military under his watch. And yet Putin survives.

Andrew Weiss, who's - he's a Russian specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And he says certainly the past two days have weakened Putin. But Weiss says this is someone who has survived for 20-plus years because he's very tactical, very street-smart, and he knows when to throw a punch. Here's Weiss.

ANDREW WEISS: This is about his personal survival, and we should expect him to be feisty and fight like hell. He's not someone who's going to be apologetic or embarrassed by the disastrous events of the last couple days. He's just going to keep going.

NORTHAM: And, Ayesha, both Weiss and McFaul say Putin is a master at manipulation and playing various parts of the government and Russia's elite off each other. And neither of them thinks the events of the past few days will bring Putin down in the near term. But they have certainly damaged his authority.

RASCOE: In the about 30 seconds we have left, what do we think will happen now? How will Putin react?

NORTHAM: Well, it's expected Putin will clamp down further - more repression and scrutiny of his intelligence services and military. And it's believed that Russia will just be more aggressive on the battlefield in Ukraine in an effort to show that Putin is still firmly in charge, despite what's happened over the weekend. But, you know, whether Russian forces can actually pull that off, given how poorly they've performed on the battlefield over the past year, remains to be seen.

RASCOE: That's NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.

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

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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