Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the war in Ukraine and has become “a bit of a pariah around the world,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
Biden said it is “hard to tell” how much Putin has been weakened by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ambitious but ill-fated coup attempt. Some experts, however, say last week’s chaotic insurgency stands as the greatest challenge yet to almost a quarter-century of Putin’s authoritarian rule.
Mary Kate Schneider, director of global studies at Loyola University Maryland, told USA TODAY that even in failure, Prigozhin’s coup attempt constitutes the single greatest challenge to Putin’s authority in his 23-year reign. Prigozhin revealed “fissures in Putin’s armor” that can be exploited by other challengers, she said. And Prigozhin’s warm reception during his brief march could encourage those dissenters.
“It doesn’t matter that Prigozhin and his soldiers did not reach Moscow, and in the long run it doesn’t even matter why he stopped short of Moscow,” Schneider said. “What matters is that Putin blinked.”
Zev Faintuch, senior intelligence analyst at Global Guardian − an international security firm with boots on the ground in Ukraine − said Putin’s “monopoly on violence in Russia is over.” Putin’s power, Faintuch said, was derived from his ability to control the “underbosses” of Russia.
“What is clear is that we are now witnessing the final act of Putin’s reign, and possibly even that of the modern Russian state,” Faintuch told USA TODAY. “We’ve all seen gangster movies when the don shows weakness, and we all know what happens next. That said, it is still far too soon to predict Putin’s imminent fall.”
∎ Ukrainian forces advanced almost a mile in various sectors of the front line Tuesday, Ukrainian Eastern Command spokesperson Serhii Cherevatyi said. Ukrainian authorities claim they have taken back more than half the land seized by Russia in the early months of the war.
∎ NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday he has called a meeting of senior officials from Turkey, Sweden, and Finland on July 6 to try to overcome Turkish objections to Sweden joining the military alliance.
∎ Lithuania will send 10 more armored vehicles to Ukraine, bringing the total to 72, Lithuania’s Defense Minister Avrydas Anusauskas announced.
∎ Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram that Russian occupying forces in Kherson province have turned impounded buildings into warehouses for looted goods and locations to dismantle stolen cars to sell their parts in Russia.
Attack on restaurant:4 dead, 47 injured after Russian missiles hit busy Ukrainian pizza restaurant
Arrest made in deadly Russian missile attack on restaurant
Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday they have detained an agent linked to the missile attack that killed at least 11 people and wounded at least 61 others in a crowded pizza restaurant in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Vasyl Maliuk, head of the Secret Service of Ukraine, issued a statement saying the agent was a spotter who informed Russia about the crowds at the restaurant and “adjusted the enemy’s missile strike.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the agent faces treason charges. “The possible punishment is life imprisonment,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “Accomplices of a terrorist state must be treated as betrayers of humanity.”
The dead included 14-year-old sisters, the city council said on Telegram. Zelenskyy initially said Russia “brutally attacked Kramatorsk with S-300 missiles,” which were designed for anti-aircraft defense and have been repurposed to attack land targets in Ukraine, but the National Police later said Iskander short-range ballistic missiles were used.
As it has throughout the war against mounting evidence, the Kremlin denied striking civilian targets.
WSJ: Prigozhin hoped to capture Russian military leaders
The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed Western officials, reported Wednesday that Prigozhin had planned to seize high-ranking Russian military leaders but that he was forced to accelerate his plans after the country’s domestic intelligence agency became aware of the plot. The “premature launch” of the insurrection may have led to its demise, the Journal said.
Prigozhin had intended to capture Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s general staff, during a planned visit to a southern region that borders Ukraine, the Journal reported. But Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, found out about the plan two days before it was to be executed, the officials said. Gen. Viktor Zolotov, commander of the National Guard of Russia, also said authorities knew about Prigozhin’s intentions before he launched his attempt.
The Western sources told the Journal it appeared Prigozhin hoped to draw support from factions of the Russian military. The ease with which Wagner’s troops pushed forward in the early hours of the coup suggests that some regular forces commanders could have been part of the plot, according to Western intelligence.
Those military leaders may have included a senior general who had been the top Russian commander in Ukraine and other lower-ranked generals, the New York Times reported, citing U.S. officials. The newspaper said the senior general, Sergei Surovikin, knew about the plot ahead of time, but it’s not clear whether he supported it. The Times also said Surovikin has not been seen publicly since Saturday.
Ukraine expects guarantee to join NATO
Ukraine has met the three key prerequisites for NATO membership and deserves a guaranteed invite to join the military alliance when the war with Russia ends, Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Wednesday. Reznikov told The Guardian that Ukraine has proved it can function with NATO forces, has a transparent procurement system and has civilian control of the military. Reznikov said it is in the alliance’s interest to fortify its eastern flank − and that NATO should issue a membership guarantee at its meeting next month in Lithuania.
“Ukraine is already serving as a protective shield for NATO’s eastern European members,” Reznikov said. “If this shield cracks, the next victims of Russian aggression could be the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary or Slovakia.”
Is Putin trying to destroy coup leader Prigozhin?
Putin apparently is trying to present Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among his Wagner Group personnel and within Russian society, a Washington-based think tank says in its latest assessment of the war. The Kremlin has pledged not to charge Prigozhin with crimes related to the coup. But Putin in recent days has implied that Prigozhin lied when he complained about lack of state compensation for Wagner and that Prigozhin had made a fortune off his military-related Concord Company.
“Putin’s insinuation that the Kremlin will investigate the Concord Company may be preparation to justify the Kremlin’s confiscation of Prigozhin’s assets via corruption charges,” the Institute for the Study of War assessment says, adding that “Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time.”
A peace envoy sent by Pope Francis was scheduled to meet with a Putin aide Wednesday, less than two weeks after a delegation of African leaders came away empty-handed in their attempt to mediate an end to the war.
The pope’s representative, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, may not be any more successful if U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is right in his assessment of Putin’s strategy.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Blinken said the biggest obstacle to peace talks is Putin’s belief that he can outlast Ukraine and the countries supporting its resistance.
“The more we are able to disabuse him of that notion, the more likely it is that at some point he’ll come to the table,” Blinken said.
Swiss block transfer of 96 Leopard tanks bound for Ukraine
The Swiss government, citing neutrality laws, shut down a plan Wednesday to ship almost 100 Leopard tanks to Ukraine. The tanks are stored in Italy in “unserviceable condition” but were designated for transport to Germany before being sent to Ukraine as military aid. Switzerland’s Federal Council issued a statement saying it “came to the conclusion that the sale of 96 tanks is not possible” because it would contradict the law on military equipment. Earlier this month, Switzerland’s National Assembly approved the sale of tanks despite strict export restrictions on weaponry.
Last week, Switzerland announced a humanitarian aid package worth more than $1.3 million for demining activities in Ukraine.
Contributing: Francesca Chambers