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Russia-Ukraine War - C.I.A. Director says Kremlin ‘Appeared to Be Adrift’ During Aborted Mutiny.

The New York Times - 21.07.23

In the most detailed public account yet given by a U.S. official, the director of the C.I.A. offered a biting assessment on Thursday of the damage done to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by the mutiny of the Wagner mercenary group, saying the rebellion had revived questions about Mr. Putin’s judgment and his detachment from events.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual national security conference, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said that for much of the 36 hours of the rebellion last month, Russian security services, the military and decision makers “appeared to be adrift.”

“For a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’” Mr. Burns said, adding, “Or, at least, ‘Why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?’”

Mr. Burns’s remarks on the Kremlin’s paralysis during the uprising carried out by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and his mercenary group built on comments a day earlier from his British counterpart, Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, who said the rebellion showed cracks in Mr. Putin’s rule.

Mr. Burns said that while Mr. Prigozhin was making up some of the steps in the rebellion “as he went along,” his critique of the Russian military leadership, which he made in a series of increasingly pugnacious statements over months, was “hiding in plain sight.”

Mr. Prigozhin has also been bitterly critical of the Kremlin’s argument for the war against Ukraine. Mr. Burns said the Telegram channel where Mr. Prigozhin posted a video challenging Russia’s main argument for invading Ukraine was watched by a third of the Russian population.

“That video was the most scathing indictment of Putin’s rationale for war, of the conduct of the war, of the corruption at the core of Putin’s regime that I have heard from a Russian or a non-Russian,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns confirmed that the United States had some notice that the uprising might take place. He predicted that Mr. Putin would try to separate the Wagner forces from Mr. Prigozhin to preserve the combat prowess of the mercenary group, which has been important to Russia’s war effort.

Since the rebellion, and the deal that ended it, Mr. Prigozhin has been in Minsk in Belarus, but has also spent time in Russia, Mr. Burns said.

He said he would be surprised if Mr. Prigozhin ultimately “escapes further retribution.”

“What we are seeing is a very complicated dance between Prigozhin and Putin,” Mr. Burns said. “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks revenge is a dish best served cold, so he is going to try to settle the situation to the extent he can.”

Mr. Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who served in Moscow as the Russian president consolidated power nearly two decades ago, added that the Russian leader is “the ultimate apostle of payback.”

And, Mr. Burns suggested, it would not just be Mr. Prigozhin who faces repercussions.

U.S. officials have said privately that a senior Russian general, Sergei V. Surovikin, had advance knowledge of Mr. Prigozhin’s plans and may have supported the rebellion.

Asked if General Surovikin was free or detained, Mr. Burns said, “I don’t think he enjoys a lot of freedom right now.”

Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger Reporting from Aspen, Colo.

The State of the War

  • A Barrage on Odesa: As Moscow resumed its blockade of ships carrying food from Ukraine after ending its participation in a deal that had allowed Ukraine to export its grain by sea, the Russian military bombarded Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port, and other shipping centers.

  • Wagner Mutiny: The chief of Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6, said that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had “cut a deal” with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, to end Prigozhin’s failed 36-hour rebellion in June.

  • Military Aid: The United States will send $1.3 billion in financial assistance to Kyiv in order to purchase a host of new military equipment and ammunition.

  • Crimea Bridge Attack: An apparent Ukrainian strike damaged an important Russian bridge linking the occupied Crimean Peninsula to mainland Russia.

Russia on Thursday stepped up its aerial assaults on Ukrainian ports critical to the world’s food supply, as the White House warned that the Kremlin has mined sea routes and may be setting the stage for attacks on commercial transport ships.

Moscow has already put shipping companies on notice that they now cross the Russian blockade in the Black Sea at their own peril. The warning came days after it renounced a multinational deal that had allowed desperately needed grain to make it to the world market.

On Thursday, Ukraine issued its own warning: Ships heading to Russian ports or to ports in occupied Ukraine, the Ministry of Defense said, will now be considered to be carrying “military cargo, with all the corresponding risks.”

The waters where Russia is said to have placed the mines are in an area already mined by Ukraine to deter an amphibious assault, and on Thursday, White House officials accused Moscow of engaging in a “false flag” operation.

The goal, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said at a news briefing, may be to implicate Ukraine should a civilian ship in the Black Sea be damaged in the coming days. “We believe that this is rather a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea, and then blame them on Ukraine,” Mr. Kirby said.

As part of the campaign, he said, a day earlier, Russia released a video showing the “detection and detonation” of what it claimed was a Ukrainian sea mine.

Despite Moscow’s own warnings to shipping outfits, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, on Thursday denied that it had any intention of attacking civilian ships, according to the state media.

The dueling claims came as Russia launched a third day of aerial attacks on Ukraine’s ports that seemed to be part of a campaign to cripple the country’s ability to export grain across the Black Sea.

The strikes on silos and other infrastructure critical to exports have increased since Russia pulled out of a U.N.-brokered deal that for a year had allowed grain shipments from Ukraine, a major grower of wheat, to reach the wider world and ease global food shortages.

Since pulling out of the agreement on Monday, Russia has mounted a series of attacks on Ukrainian port cities. Ukrainian officials said Wednesday’s missile and drone attacks appeared to target Ukraine’s grain export infrastructure. In Chornomorsk, just south of Odesa, 60,000 tons of grain waiting to be loaded on to ships was destroyed in the attack, according to Ukraine’s agricultural minister.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, said Russia had not only withdrawn from the grain agreement “but they are burning the grain,” too.

“What we already know is that this is going to create a big, a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters before an E.U. meeting in Brussels.

Two ports were hit on Thursday. At least 19 people, including one child, were injured in Mykolaiv, a port city a short distance up an estuary off the Black Sea, after an explosion sparked a fire at a residential building, according to Vitaly Kim, the head of the regional military administration. Two more people, a married couple, were found dead underneath the rubble on Thursday morning, the chief of police in the Mykolaiv region said on Telegram.

The U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, strongly condemned the attacks against the ports and released a statement that said destroying civilian infrastructure “may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law,” a U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said.

And Odesa, already reeling from two nights of some of the biggest assaults on the city since the beginning of the war, was also targeted, resulting in a large fire in the city center, according to the regional military administrator. At least one person had been found dead under the rubble of a destroyed building, Oleh Kiper, the regional governor of Odesa, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.

The White House on Thursday warned that the United States has information suggesting the Russian military may expand its targeting of grain facilities in Ukraine to include civilian ships in the Black Sea, then try to blame the attacks on Ukraine.

Earlier this week, Russia backed out of a wartime agreement to allow grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea, then said it considered all ships headed to Ukrainian ports potential carriers of military cargo and that they could be treated as hostile.

In addition, Russia has been laying new sea mines on routes into Ukrainian ports, threatening the broader shipping industry, the officials said. In recent days, Russia has also targeted exports of grain at ports in Odesa, Ukraine, with missiles and drones, leading to the loss of 60,000 tons of grain and other agriculture infrastructure.

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Russia-Ukraine War - C.I.A. Director William J
. Burns says Kremlin ‘Appeared to Be Adrift’

Ukraine has accused Russia of targeting the infrastructure for exporting food after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal. Credit...Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

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