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“Dead Men Walking”: James Risen on How the Wagner Revolt Threatens Both Putin & Prigozhin

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The Kremlin says it has dropped criminal charges against Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenaries after he attempted to lead an aborted mutiny against the Russian military. Prigozhin has reportedly arrived in Belarus. We speak with James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Intercept, who covered the 1991 attempted coup in Moscow and says Prigozhin may have had a chance to complete his march on Moscow and topple the government, but he lost his nerve. Risen says the rebellion exposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule as hollow. “Prigozhin is clearly a threat, as long as he’s alive, to Putin,” warns Risen.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with developments in Russia as the embattled head of Russia’s Wagner Group has reportedly arrived in Belarus to live in exile. Earlier today, the Kremlin said it had dropped criminal charges against Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin after he led a mutiny that saw an armored column of Russian mercenaries advance to within 120 miles of Moscow. On Monday, Prigozhin published his first public statements since calling off the mutiny on Saturday, saying his forces were reacting to an attack by Russia’s military that killed dozens of Wagner fighters.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: [translated] None of the Wagner fighters was forced to take part in this march. Everybody knew its final goal. The goal of the march was to avoid destruction of the Wagner PMC and bring to responsibility those responsible, whose unprofessional actions caused a huge number of mistakes during the special military operation.

Our decision to turn around was based on two important factors. The first factor is that we did not want to shed Russian blood. The second factor is that we were registering our protest and not seeking to overthrow the government of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Russian soldiers outside the Kremlin today, praising them for their defense of Russia’s capital, which he said, quote, “essentially prevented a civil war.” Russia’s RIA news agency reported Putin also spoke Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who offered his support. Putin attempted to reassert his authority in a national address Monday.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] An armed rebellion would have been suppressed in any case. The organizers of the rebellion, despite being inadequate, could not fail to understand this. … However, the organizers of the rebellion, betraying their country, their people, betrayed those who lured them into the crime. They lied to them, pushed them toward death, under fire, to shoot their own people. It was precisely this outcome, fratricide, that Russia’s enemy wanted, both the neo-Nazis in Kyiv and their Western masters and all sorts of national traitors.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky visited soldiers on the frontlines and used his nightly address to praise Ukrainian troops for advancing, quote, “in all directions.”

For more, we begin today’s show with James Risen, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, formerly with The New York Times, now with The Intercept, where he is senior national security correspondent. Jim Risen covered the 1991 attempted coup in Moscow for the Los Angeles Times. His latest article for The Intercept is headlined “Prigozhin and Putin: Dead Men Walking: In the duel between the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both men lost their nerve.”

In a moment, we’re going to talk about your new book, The Last Honest Man, but first, Jim, let’s talk about this latest breaking news out of Russia. Why do you refer to Prigozhin and Putin as “dead men walking”?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think Prigozhin is clearly a threat, as long as he’s alive, to Putin. And Putin has thrown a lot of people out of windows for a lot less than what Prigozhin has done. Prigozhin now can claim that he wasn’t really trying to stage a coup, but it sure looked like a coup to everybody else, including Putin. And I think he — you know, he came so close to Moscow and so close to seizing power, and then he seems to have lost his nerve and cut a last-second deal with Putin, through Lukashenko, the Belarus dictator, and now he’s kind of skulking off to Belarus in exile. And I don’t think it’s possible for Putin to allow him to continue to pose a threat to him from Belarus. And if we’ve seen anything from Putin’s track record, it’s that he kills his opponents or anybody he thinks threatens his power. And he’s done it to people, as I said earlier, to people who have posed much less of a threat to him than Prigozhin does.

And I think with Putin, he has been so weakened by this, and he’s been exposed as a much weaker leader than anybody realized. I think this will embolden a lot of his opponents, both in Russia and outside. I think it’s going to embolden Ukraine and NATO to stand up more consistently to Russia and to Putin. And I think it’s really a devastating event for his future as a leader. I don’t think he can survive much longer, unless he takes some more far more dramatic action against Prigozhin than he has in the past.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jim Risen, in terms of the causes of this revolt, to begin with, I mean, this claim of Prigozhin that his forces were attacked by the Russian military, which, again, would — like many events in this war, it’s quite hard to tell what actually happened versus what is —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — being claimed to happen, because there, apparently, had been —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — an attempt by the Russian government to bring all of these private military groups under the military.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And not only the Wagner Group, but there are several other private military groups that are functioning as part of the Russian war effort. So, was this really —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Did this attempt — this attack happen, as far as you can tell? Has it been verified?

JAMES RISEN: I think it’s still unclear whether it really happened or whether it’s part of Prigozhin’s disinformation campaign, because he’s — you know, that’s what he’s — he’s really good at disinformation, just like Putin is. So it’s unclear. But clearly, I think, far earlier than this supposed bombing, you know, Putin — I mean, Prigozhin was planning this. I think it’s pretty obvious he was planning this for quite some time, and maybe he used some rocket attack as a predicate for a justification for going forward.

I think, you know, the fact that he was able to march from Ukraine into Rostov and then north with virtually no opposition from the Russian military or the Russian security services must have been shocking to Putin, and, I think, is going to embolden all of Putin’s — any rivals that he has inside Russia. You know, he has — as I said earlier, he’s killed off most of his major rivals. I just don’t see how he’s going to let Prigozhin live for very long.

AMY GOODMAN: Read a comment — 

JAMES RISEN: But I think — I also think Putin — no, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a comment, a email that we got from the executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, Yurii Sheliazhenko. He wrote to us, quote, “I think the main lesson of the Wagner mutiny is that Russian militarists, including even war criminals like Putin and Prigozhin, are capable of negotiating and stopping bloodshed. … This is an additional argument why it is not only necessary for humanitarian reasons, but also it must be possible to cease fire in Ukraine and start peace talks, not prolong the war for multiple decades.” He’s saying, in this case, though he calls them both war criminals, this should not be viewed as weakness but as an opening for negotiation even with the overall war, Jim. Your thoughts?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting idea. I think it’s possible that this may be the moment of weakness for Putin where maybe the West should see if he’s ready to get out of Ukraine. I think if he was smart, he would pull his troops out of Ukraine now to solidify his power in Russia. You know, one of the vulnerabilities that Prigozhin exposed for Putin was that he had so much of the Russian army and security services in Ukraine that the door was open for Prigozhin to almost march right into Moscow. And so, for a dictator like Putin, it’s got to give you pause about how long you want to stay in Ukraine. So, yeah, I mean, it might be — you might see some possible opening for trying to see if Putin is ready to get out of Ukraine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the former CIA analyst Mel Goodman has an article today along the same lines, but he’s also saying that that would require the United States, as well, to offer some efforts to bring back the expansion of NATO as a means of getting a negotiated settlement. What’s your sense of that?

JAMES RISEN: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, to me, what Ukraine — what the war in Ukraine has shown is that Russia will attack — that Putin, prior to the Ukraine invasion — I don’t know how he feels now, after the war has gone so badly, but he clearly was interested in trying to rebuild the Soviet Union in some fashion. You know, I think he’s gained much more control over Belarus. He’s fought wars in Georgia and now in Ukraine.

But all of those countries have one thing in common, which is that they are not in NATO. He has not attacked any NATO country. And I think the fact the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are in NATO has made them an area that he’s not going to attack, even though I think he would love to have the Baltic states back in the Russian empire. And the same for Poland and other parts of what used to be known as the Warsaw Pact. So, I don’t think that NATO is going to turn back. I think, in fact, once the war is ended, I would bet a lot of money that Ukraine will join NATO.

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