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How much is Putin to blame for the fallout from the failed weekend mutiny?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much does a mutiny in Russia really matter? It was startling when Russian mercenaries turned away from Ukraine and drove toward Moscow. Rather than crush that uprising, President Vladimir Putin persuaded the leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to leave. Outside analysts say that makes Putin look weak. Andrew Weiss has his own view of this. He directs research on Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Good morning, sir.

ANDREW WEISS: Great to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: Does this episode show Putin's vulnerability?

WEISS: Everything about the war in Ukraine, which has been a debacle since it was launched in February, 2022, has been a big stain on Putin's reputation and, I think, has raised fundamental questions about what motivates him and his staying power as Russia's leader.

INSKEEP: OK. But is he actually vulnerable? Is there a danger that he could lose power?

WEISS: So amid all the drama of the past several days, which was truly remarkable, we lose sight of a couple of things. One, Russia is not a democracy. Vladimir Putin is not running for reelection. Two, the things that keep him in power are his willingness to knock heads, the amount of sort of coercive, repressive power, which hasn't really been tapped that much in this crisis, and then lastly, the passivity, inertia and fear that are prevalent throughout the entire society but are concentrated in part in the Russian elite. So the idea that someone's going to rise up against him or throw their loyalty to Prigozhin, all of that, to me, seems rather far-fetched.

INSKEEP: I just want to note your background in talking about this. You have written a Putin biography called "Accidental Czar: The Life And Lies Of Vladimir Putin." I think you're telling me, based on your research, that the Russian elite has a pattern now of almost a quarter century of essentially doing whatever this man says?

WEISS: Yeah, the learned helplessness of the Russian elite is truly remarkable. Not a single person has stood up who has real weight in the Russian system and said, I can't take it anymore, and criticize Putin, said this is a horrible stain on Russia or my own reputation. The Russian elite have adapted and gotten in line. And I think after this incident, which was truly destabilizing and raised a lot of questions about who's in charge and, you know, who allowed a person with a catering background to assemble an off-the-books army over the past decade, all of those kinds of questions and the sorting out are going to be big focus for Vladimir Putin. He's going to tighten the screws. He's going to try to intimidate people. And the Russian elite are going to suck it up.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, this former caterer who became the leader of a mercenary organization did rise up and say something is wrong here, and launched what seemed to be a mutiny, an attempt to decapitate the military leadership. And now we're following these unconfirmed reports of a general, perhaps, arrested, other leaders not being seen in public, questions about who's under suspicion. Is it possible that there were people inside the system who, even if they didn't speak out publicly, were trying to remove Putin or weaken Putin or change something?

WEISS: Well, think about it. Russia is a country run by its national security apparatus. That apparatus is sprawling and basically sucks up about 26% or so of the entire state budget. The people who oversee the national security bureaucracy hate each other's guts and are constantly jockeying for favor with Putin or more resources. Much of what Prigozhin was up to, including over this weekend and in all of his public comments and activity on social media in recent months, was about preening in front of the boss and saying, your career top brass have let you down. It's my guys who can deliver for you on the ground in Ukraine. This was largely about the competition within the national security apparatus. It was not about removing Putin from power.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting. So you're telling me this was a competition essentially for Putin's favor among various people?

WEISS: Absolutely. And the Russian military leadership has underperformed dramatically throughout this war. The two people who Prigozhin has centered his attacks on - the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the commander of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov - are widely hated, including within those organizations. They're seen as incompetent. But now Putin is stuck with them. And the real test will be, does he remove them after this avalanche of criticism by Prigozhin, who, after all, is now seen as a traitor? It's a very dysfunctional system.

INSKEEP: Now, we've just got a few seconds here, but I want to ask. It's easy to see the Russian elites as cowardly or weak instead of being strong or brave. But is there another way to think of this, that when the Russian elites think about their interests, their interests still lie with supporting Vladimir Putin?

WEISS: Absolutely. They're complicit in the horrible criminality and atrocities that Russian forces have brought to Ukraine. Their, I think, de facto position right now is hang together or we're going to hang separately.

INSKEEP: Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a biography of Vladimir Putin. Thanks so much.

WEISS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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