ASPEN, Colo. — Russia’s elite are showing increasing anxiety about President Vladimir Putin’s judgment, especially following a brief mutiny that appeared to catch the Kremlin off guard last month, CIA Director William Burns said Thursday.
The U.S. spy agency is trying to seize on that and other seeming cracks in Putin’s control, which the mutiny exposed, Burns added. A CIA video that has sought to recruit Russian informants was viewed some 2.5 million times in its first week.
“What it resurrected was some deeper questions … about Putin’s judgment, about his relative detachment from events and even about his indecisiveness,” Burns said in an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum.
The daylong mutiny, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, was aimed mainly at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Burns said. Prigozhin had been publicly critical of such officials, and he has insisted he wasn’t targeting Putin.
But that Wagner forces were able to travel across a good chunk of Russia unimpeded was a major black eye for Putin, as was Prigozhin’s public criticisms about the rationale for the Russian war on Ukraine and the corruption of the Russian elite.
“I think in many ways it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in a system that Putin has built,” Burns said. Even aside from the mutiny, such weaknesses “were exposed by Putin’s misjudgment since he launched this invasion” of Ukraine.
That echoed comments earlier in the Aspen forum by U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly that the revolt exposed “cracks” in Putin’s regime.
There are allegations that Sergey Surovikin, another top Russian general, may have known about Prigozhin’s rebellion plans. Surovikin has not been seen in public for weeks. “I don’t think he enjoys a lot of freedom right now,” Burns said.
Putin has managed to defang Prigozhin for now, essentially exiling him to Belarus. The Russian leader is likely to try to separate Prigozhin from what he finds useful in Wagner, a force with mercenaries in many countries, Burns said.
Putin also will likely find a way to exact revenge on Prigozhin and eliminate him in the long run, said Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
“If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” Burns quipped.