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Updated Jun 26, 2023, 9:11am EDT
politics

Putin is weakened. Now what?

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The News

After the brief-but-stunning mutiny in Russia over the weekend, the general consensus in Washington is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a weakened position. But there are still plenty of unknowns following the public break between Putin and his one-time confidant, Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

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Will Ukraine capitalize?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested on CBS that the “distraction” created by the crisis within Russia could be an opening for the Ukrainian forces to gain more ground. Russia will lose at least some of Wagner’s 25,000 troops, which were supplementing the Russian forces and played an outsized role in seizing Bakhmut.

The Ukrainians, who just started their long-awaited counteroffensive, continue to press for more air defense and other weapons from the U.S. There aren’t signs yet of any significant shift in Ukraine’s strategy following the mutiny.

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“We keep going,” Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told Semafor. “The whole world saw how weak Putin’s regime is.”

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What’s in Prigozhin’s deal?

Prigozhin abruptly agreed to turn his forces back and under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will apparently be exiled to Belarus and will avoid arrest and prosecution. But analysts suspect there may be more to the agreement than meets the eye (or that the Russians are disclosing), whether it’s secret provisions, hidden motives, or some unknown form of leverage that forced Prigozhin to abruptly end his insurrection. “I doubt he’s going to just lounge in Belarus,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general for United States Army Europe, told Semafor.

Top Russian officials have all been notably quiet since hostilities ended, though Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was shown speaking to troops in a video released by the government Monday. Adding to the intrigue, Russia’s state news agency TASS reported Monday that the criminal investigation into Prigozhin had not been closed.

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Will China’s support for Russia wane?

China’s foreign ministry offered words of support for Russia’s actions to “stabilize” the country and Chinese diplomats held meetings with Russia’s deputy foreign minister over the weekend. But U.S. officials have consistently spoken of signs of China’s discomfort with the way Russia has struggled in its war in Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric. Some suggest the recent events could drive a wedge between the two allied countries.

“His closest ally Chairman Xi is probably having second thoughts about this alliance he made with Putin,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas said on Fox News.

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What does it mean for Wagner?

The Wagner Group, which is sanctioned by the U.S. as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” has been fighting alongside the Russian forces in Ukraine. The group is also trying to grow its influence in Africa, something that has increasingly worried U.S. officials in recent years, and its role fighting insurgencies in Mali and Central African Republic with Russian backing is now in question. That could give the U.S. and other western countries a wedge to try and disrupt its operations on the continent, where members have been accused of war crimes.

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