WASHINGTON (AP) — On the surface, the turmoil in Russia would seem like something for the U.S. to celebrate: a powerful mercenary group engaging in a short-lived clash with Russia’s military at the very moment that Ukraine is trying to gain momentum in a critical counteroffensive.
But the public response by Washington has been decidedly cautious. Officials say the U.S. had no role in the conflict, insist this was an internal matter for Russia and decline to comment on whether it could affect the war in Ukraine. The reason: to avoid creating an opening for Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize on the rhetoric of American officials and rally Russians by blaming his Western adversaries.
Even President Joe Biden, known for straying from talking points, has stayed on script.
Biden told reporters Monday that the United States and NATO weren’t involved. Biden said he held a video call with allies over the weekend and they are all in sync in working to ensure that they give Putin “no excuse to blame this on the West” or NATO.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said. “This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”
Biden and administration officials declined to give an immediate assessment of what the 22-hour uprising by the Wagner Group might mean for Russia’s war in Ukraine, for mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin or for Russia itself.
“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications from Russia and Ukraine,” Biden said. “But it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going.”
Putin, in his first public comments since the rebellion, said “Russia’s enemies” had hoped the mutiny would succeed in dividing and weakening Russia, “but they miscalculated.” He identified the enemies as “the neo-Nazis in Kyiv, their Western patrons and other national traitors.”
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia was investigating whether Western intelligence services were involved in Prigozhin’s rebellion.
Over the course of a tumultuous weekend in Russia, U.S. diplomats were in contact with their counterparts in Moscow to underscore that the American government regarded the matter as a domestic affair for Russia, with the U.S. only a bystander, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said that Putin in the past has alleged clandestine U.S. involvement in events — including democratic uprisings in former Soviet countries, and campaigns by democracy activists inside and outside Russia — as a way to diminish public support among Russians for those challenges to the Russian system.
The U.S. and NATO “don’t want to be blamed for the appearance of trying to destabilize Putin,” McFaul said.
A feud between the Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into the mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city. They rolled for hundreds of kilometers toward Moscow, before turning around on Saturday, in a deal whose terms remain uncertain.
Biden’s national security team briefed him hourly as Prigozhin’s forces were on the move, the president said. He said he had directed them to “prepare for a range of scenarios” as Russia’s crisis unfolded.
Biden did not elaborate on the scenarios. But national security spokesman John Kirby addressed one concern raised frequently as the world watched the cracks opening in Putin’s hold on power — worries that the Russian leader might take extreme action to reassert his command.
Putin and his lieutenants have made repeated references to Russia’s nuclear weapons since invading Ukraine 16 months ago, aiming to discourage NATO countries from increasing their support to Ukraine.
“One thing that we have always talked about, unabashedly so, is that it’s in nobody’s interest for this war to escalate beyond the level of violence that is already visited upon the Ukrainian people,” Kirby said at a White House news briefing. “It’s not good for, certainly, Ukraine and not good for our allies and partners in Europe. Quite frankly, it’s not good for the Russian people.”
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over the weekend, telling him, ”’No matter what happened in Russia, let me say again, no matter what happened in Russia, we in the United States would continue to support Ukraine’s defense and sovereignty and its territorial integrity.” Biden said.
The Pentagon is expected to announce Tuesday that it is sending up to $500 million in additional military aid to Ukraine, including more than 50 heavily armored vehicles and an infusion of missiles for air defense systems, U.S. officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the aid had not yet been publicly announced.
Biden, in the first weeks after Putin sent tens of thousands of Russian forces into Ukraine in February 2022, had issued a passionate statement against the Russian leader’s continuing in command. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said then, as reports emerged of Russian atrocities against civilians in Ukraine.
On Monday, U.S. officials were careful not to be seen as backing either Putin or his former longtime protege, Prigozhin, in public comments.
“We believe it’s up to the Russian people to determine who their leadership is,” Kirby said.
White House officials were also trying to understand how Beijing was digesting the Wagner revolt and what it might mean for the China-Russia relationship going forward. China and Russia are each other’s closest major partner. The White House says Beijing has considered — but not followed through on — sending Russia weaponry for use in Ukraine.
“I think it’d be fair to say that recent developments in Russia had been unsettling to the Chinese leadership,” said Kurt Campbell, coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the White House National Security Council, speaking at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think I’ll just leave it at that.”
China values Russia as a friend in part to keep from standing alone against the U.S. and its allies in disputes. With Russia’s invasion and resulting international sanctions sapping Russian resources and now sparking a rebellion, McFaul said, Ukraine and its allies could make the case: ”’Xi Jinping, you know, if you want your buddy to stay in power, maybe this is the time to put some pressure on him to wrap up this war.‴
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.