William Burns, the Director of the CIA, believes that President Putin cannot afford to let Prigozhin get away with his short-lived rebellion and may just be buying time before exacting revenge.
A video was released of Burns speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, which ran from July 18 – 21, where he characterized the Russian President as “the ultimate apostle of payback.”
He said that the Wagner PMC had “exposed significant weaknesses in the system Putin has built,” which had seriously damaged Putin’s persona as the ultimate strong man which he had spent years building up.
Burns said that the mutiny from someone who had appeared to have such strong ties with the Russian President will have left many of Moscow’s elite, who already have deep concerns about the wisdom of his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the question of “whether the emperor had no clothes or at least why is it taking him so long to get dressed.”
The CIA assessment is that Putin’s basic problem is the Wagner group itself still has value because of the reputation it has gained in parts of Africa, Libya and Syria and the non-attributable nature of its support to Russian foreign policy.
“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” according to the CIA Director. “He will almost certainly go after Prigozhin when the time is ripe.”
Burns suggested that the Kremlin will most likely be working on ways to separate the group from its leader. “What he’s going to try to do is separate Prigozhin and undercut him but preserve what’s of value to him,” he said, adding the president will likely want to hold on to the Wagner group, but cut Prigozhin loose.
He also confirmed that the intelligence agency knew the mutiny had been in the offing and that it was likely that the senior Russian army general, Sergei Surovikin, knew about the Wagner mutiny in advance and as a result does not currently have “freedom of movement,” the CIA chief added.
The Wagner boss is currently believed to be in Belarus, after he appeared to be there in a video welcoming his fighters to the country although it was not clear when it was filmed.
Burns confirmed the US believed Prigozhin is indeed in Belarus.
“He’s moved around a bit. I think he’s been in Minsk lately,” he said. “[We’re] not sure he has any plans to retire in the suburbs of Minsk. But he spent time in Russia, as well.”
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden joked about the risk of poisoning for the Wagner boss “… if I were he, I'd be careful what I ate.”
The CIA director made a similar joke in Aspen, saying: “If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn't fire my food taster.”
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