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What's next for Putin's rule and the war in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russian leader Vladimir Putin faced a direct challenge to his authority over the weekend. A mercenary leader launched a brief uprising against the Russian military, which the head of the group claims was merely a protest. The events raised questions about the future of Putin's rule and the war in Ukraine. NPR is one of the few U.S. news organizations that currently has correspondents in both Russia and Ukraine. They are here with some answers for us. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and Greg Myre in Kyiv - good to have you guys here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I want to get to Ukraine in a moment, but to start in Russia, Charles, tell us what it's like in Moscow today.

MAYNES: Well, it's been very quiet and almost eerily so, as I think the authorities are trying to project calm after this weekend's chaotic events. Today, in fact, was a non-working day here on the orders of the city mayor, which has prompted jokes that the only concrete thing that came out of this very confusing 24-hour uprising was a holiday - might as well enjoy it.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the leader of the uprising, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was behind the rebellion. He leads the Wagner mercenary group, which, until now, has been fighting for Russia against Ukraine. Where is he, and what did he say today?

MAYNES: Well, according to the Kremlin, he's supposed to be in Belarus in exile under this amnesty deal brokered late Saturday. Yet today Prigozhin resurfaced with a lengthy audio message on his social media account that didn't tell us where he was but focused on why he did what he did. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Prigozhin says his fighters marched on the capital as an act of protest but not with the goal of overthrowing the Russian government. And he went on to explain that Wagner fighters were angry over an order that would place the mercenary group subordinate to the defense ministry beginning next month. He claimed his mercenaries hadn't wanted any violence, although he acknowledged destroying military helicopters that he said had been attacking Wagner positions.

And once again, we heard Prigozhin go after the top brass, which is, of course, what started this whole crisis. Prigozhin said that the ease of Wagner's march into Russia and up towards Moscow again highlighted the failures of the military leadership. In contrast, Prigozhin said, Wagner had conducted what he called a master class in how Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine should have and possibly could have gone in the first place if, of course, Wagner had been entrusted with the job.

SHAPIRO: Charles, President Putin addressed the weekend's events in a statement today. What did he say?

MAYNES: Yeah. In fact, we heard from Putin this evening in what the Kremlin spokesman billed as a speech that would define the fate of Russia. I'm not sure that it did that, but Putin congratulated Russian society for coming together to put down this revolt. He again denounced the uprising as a criminal act. He said he would hold to this deal for the Wagner fighters. They could sign up with the military to keep fighting, go home or join Prigozhin in exile in Belarus. It was their choice. Now, many Western observers have argued Putin looked weak giving this amnesty deal to rebels he vowed to crush just a few days earlier. Yet here in Moscow, we've seen a different take - that, faced with a serious crisis, Putin made the smart call. Viktor Litovkin is a veteran military analyst with the state TASS news agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIKTOR LITOVKIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Litovkin told me this was a serious threat that could have led to civil war and split the country apart at a crucial moment when it's fighting in Ukraine. And Litovkin credits President Putin with having what he calls the wisdom as a leader to not allow blood to be spilt and find a relatively peaceful outcome.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's turn to Kyiv. Greg, how are people in Ukraine reacting to all this?

MYRE: Well, they were glued to the events over the weekend. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other leaders said the events in Russia just confirm what they've been saying all along - that Russia is weak and fractured and the only permanent solution is to drive out all the Russian forces. And as soon as the rebellion ended here, attention reverted back to the war very quickly, which has continued at the same intense pace.

SHAPIRO: Ukraine has been kind of bogged down in this offensive. Is the uprising in Russia likely to change Ukraine's approach?

MYRE: You know, there's no sign of that so far, no indication that the turmoil inside Russia has translated into disarray on the battlefield. The Russians still appear very well entrenched. Now, the Ukrainians stress that the bulk of the forces designated for this offensive - the ones that have been trained and equipped in recent months with U.S. and NATO weapons - still haven't been deployed. And I can say that U.S. military hardware is very much in evidence here. I've been to a number of Ukrainian military sites in recent days. I've seen U.S. Stinger missiles mounted on the back of U.S. Humvees, American river patrol boats with U.S. machine guns on them. I've seen troops training with MRAPs, these hulking vehicles that can withstand landmines. So the Ukrainians have more firepower than at any point in the war, but they haven't fully unleashed it yet.

SHAPIRO: And if the Russian side loses the help of the Wagner mercenary army, Charles, is that going to weaken Russia's assault?

MAYNES: Well, Prigozhin would obviously say yes, and there's no doubt that Wagner has played an important role in securing places like Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where they were largely responsible for taking the city, albeit at a great human cost. In today's message, Prigozhin insisted 98% of his forces remain opposed to the Defense Ministry leadership. So the question is really, what do the Wagner fighters do now that Putin has put this offer out there? Do they join back into the ranks of the military or take the exit ramp elsewhere?

SHAPIRO: And what is the state of the clash on the battlefield, Greg?

MYRE: Yeah, Ukraine said today that they've captured another village. This is the ninth they've claimed so far. They've also reclaimed about 50 square miles in this offensive, which is now in its third week. So that's progress, but it's very slow. The fighting is very heavy. Casualties appear to be high on both sides. The Russian forces are just contesting everything. The Ukrainians have already lost some of the U.S. and European armored vehicles that they recently received. Ukraine has yet to retake or even fight for any significant towns or cities. The clear goal is to get all the way to the southeast coast and split the Russian forces in two. But the Ukrainians are still at least 60 miles away from the coast, so Ukraine is trying to manage expectations, saying this will take months and there'll be a lot of heavy fighting.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you both.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari.

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

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.

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