The United States and its allies have “nothing to do with” the uprising of the mercenary Wagner Group against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leadership, President Biden said on Monday, in his first public comment on the short-lived insurgency that instigated an extraordinary weekend of crisis in Russia.
“This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” Biden told reporters at the White House before announcing the Internet Infrastructure Initiative.
Mr. Biden said he has instructed his national security team to brief him “hour by hour” and “prepare for a range of scenarios.” He also said he held a conference call to coordinate with some key allies of the United States as the insurgency led by Wagner founder Yevgeny V. Prigozhin at the weekend.
Biden said the allies agreed on the call not to give Mr. Putin “any excuse to blame the West or blame NATO.” He added, “We made it clear that we are not involved. We have nothing to do with it.”
Biden said he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom he spoke on Sunday, would remain in touch. Mr. Biden said the United States will continue to assess the implications of the crisis in Russia and closely align responses with its allies. However, he cautioned that “it’s still too early to come to a definitive conclusion about where this is going.”
Mr. Prigozhin was last seen in public late Saturday after Wagner’s brief revolution was cancelled. He agreed to cancel his troops’ march on Moscow under an agreement that would stop a criminal investigation into his activities and allow him to go to Belarus. On Monday, Mr. Prigozhin broke his silence claiming his advance on Moscow was never intended as an attempt to seize power.
In a separate news briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Monday that he did not know if Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus and that he had “no assessment” of Mr. Prigozhin’s location whatsoever. He added that the United States does not know what will happen to the Wagner fighters in Ukraine or Africa, describing the situation as “dynamic”.
Still, Miller said, the importance of Prigozhin’s powerful play was clear.
“It is definitely something new to see President Putin’s leadership being directly challenged,” he said, noting that Mr. Prigozhin has publicly questioned the rationale for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, something “certainly not seen from Russian officials previously.”
Mr. Miller added that the United States “has not taken a position on the leadership of the Russian Federation. We are not taking a position on the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry.”
“Our policies have always been in relation to the actions that Russia has taken,” he said.
While Mr. Miller may have been expressing official US policy, President Biden has previously expressed a different personal view.
“For God’s sake, this guy can’t stay in power,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Putin during a visit to Poland in March 2022.
Mr. Miller also said that the US ambassador to Russia, Lynn M. Tracy, I called the Russian government on Saturday, reminding Russian officials of their obligations to protect the US Embassy and diplomatic personnel in Moscow.
Mrs. Miller said Ms. Tracy reiterated her assertions that the Biden administration viewed the uprising as an internal Russian affair, “something in which the United States does not and will not participate.”