In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, U.S. officials and lawmakers from both parties said Sunday that the brief rebellion against Russia’s defense officials by a Russian mercenary group had weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin — and strengthened the United States’ resolve to continue supporting Ukraine.
“What we’ve seen is extraordinary,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Think about it this way: 16 months ago Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, believing they would take the capital in a matter of days and erase the country from the map as an independent country. Now, what we’ve seen is Russia having to defend Moscow, its capital, against mercenaries of his own making.”
Wagner Group soldiers had marched within about 120 miles of Moscow before abruptly turning around as part of a brokered deal. Criminal charges previously started against Wagner’s leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, would be dropped, according to a Kremlin spokesperson.
President Biden has not tried to contact Putin since Saturday’s unrest, but he has convened his national security advisers and key allies, Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.” The United States will watch internal divisions between Putin and other Russians closely to determine how much control he retains domestically and over the war in Ukraine, Blinken added.
The Biden administration’s reaction to the insurrection has been somewhat measured and low key. The Washington Post has reported that U.S. intelligence had picked up indications that Prigozhin was planning armed action against the Russian defense establishment; a rivalry between the two groups had been simmering for months. But on Sunday, officials focused on supporting Ukraine’s continued efforts to push Russian forces out of its territory.
“Our focus has to be and remains resolutely on Ukraine,” Blinken said. “There is absolute unity, both of purpose and in action, in terms of supporting Ukraine, making sure they have what they need to defend themselves. And that’s where our focus is; that’s where the president’s focus has been.”
Prigozhin is “in many ways a creation of Putin,” Blinken added, saying that Wagner Group forces have been responsible for horrible atrocities against Ukrainian civilians and noting that the mercenary group is in Africa as well.
The Wagner Group chief was also diminished by his about-face on Saturday, retired Gen. David Petraeus, who was also CIA director, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Prigozhin kept his life, but lost his Wagner Group. And he should be very careful around open windows in his new surroundings in Belarus, where he’s going,” Petraeus said, alluding to the tendency for Putin’s critics to die in violent or mysterious ways.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers said the mutiny showed the United States’ strategy in Ukraine — and its continued assistance to the country, which has been under Russian attack since 2014 — is working.
“Vladimir Putin has bitten off a lot more than he ever thought possible when he marched into Ukraine,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a former Air Force general in Europe and member of the House Armed Services Committee, urged his fellow Republicans to continue providing Ukraine with military hardware.
“I think too many Republicans have tried to stay under the radar on this,” Bacon said on “Meet the Press.”
Bacon called U.S. aid to Ukraine a worthy investment, noting that the United States has diminished Russia’s military by 50 percent by spending the equivalent of 5 percent of the Pentagon budget to help Ukraine.
“What we saw this weekend was how fragile Putin’s leadership is right now, how fragile the Russian military is,” Bacon said. “And why is that? They have lost 200,000 troops in this year and a half. That is almost seven times more than what America lost in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Texas congressman Will Hurd, both GOP candidates for the 2024 presidential nomination, pledged continued support for Ukraine — comments that stood in contrast to those expressed by some of their GOP opponents, including former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Both Trump and DeSantis, along with a growing faction of Republicans, have criticized U.S. aid to Ukraine.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Christie said an isolationist approach was the wrong stance, describing the war in Ukraine as a proxy war with China, which has neither outright supported nor condemned Russia’s aggression.
“America has never been a great country and the leader of the world by filling in the moat and pulling up the drawbridge,” Christie said. “ … I am absolutely a believer in the fact that America will be bigger, stronger, richer and more influential in the world because we stood by our principles and stood by our friends.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the coup in Russia, however short-lived, should be giving Chinese President Xi Jinping pause about any military action against Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that China claims as part of its territory and has vowed to take by force if necessary.
“I think [Putin’s] closest ally, Chairman Xi, is probably having second thoughts about this alliance he made with Putin,” McCaul said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” noting that it seems as if Putin “can’t control his own army and his own people.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its website Sunday calling the rebellion by Prigozhin an “internal affair.”
“As Russia’s friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity,” the statement read.
Shera Avi-Yonah contributed to this report.