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Chair of the Senate intelligence committee weighs in on failed mutiny against Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today we heard from both men at the center of a crisis in Russia over the weekend. The leader of the Wagner Group released an audio message for the first time since his mercenaries stopped their advance on Moscow. Yevgeny Prigozhin says he never intended to overthrow Russia's government. Rather, he says, this mutiny was just a protest. And then Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement saying the organizer of the uprising was a traitor but that an amnesty deal will be respected. Western leaders are following this closely. And we are joined now by the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARK WARNER: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Help us parse this statement from Putin, which seems to say the amnesty deal that allowed the head of the Wagner group to go safely to Belarus will be respected even while denouncing the organizer of the uprising for criminal acts. How do you reconcile these two positions?

WARNER: Well, I don't think they are reconcilable. I think there is still more than a bit of chaos going on in Russia. And remember; you know, the American government has not been involved. These are both bad guys. Putin, I think, most of your listening audience has followed from his invasion into Ukraine illegally. And - but Prigozhin has actually taken on some of the most outrageous acts, this Wagner group, not only in Ukraine in terms of atrocities - Syria and parts of Africa. And, again, I remind your listeners Prigozhin is still under indictment in the United States because one of his companies was the Internet Research Agency that sponsored most of the 2016 election interference.

SHAPIRO: The election disinformation was controlled from.

WARNER: Right.

SHAPIRO: Well, if Putin's statement seems like an irreconcilable contradiction, what about Prigozhin's statement, where he says this was just a protest when, over the weekend, it looked very much like an attempted coup? Where on that spectrum would you place the events of the last few days?

WARNER: I will believe what my eyes saw, which was Prigozhin's forces entered into Rostov, which is the city of about a million people, where literally the whole Russian war in Ukraine - that's their command center. And he took it with barely a shot. And then, again, images on televisions around the world saw some of the fireballs and explosions, saw the public, open-source reporting of Russian military helicopters being taken down. Again, that was all real time on Saturday. This is obviously still a bit of a chaotic situation.

SHAPIRO: And does that chaos worry you, given that Russia is a nuclear power?

WARNER: It does worry me. I mean, it's, again, why I think the United States and our allies have been following this but has had no role at all in these actions.

SHAPIRO: Reiterating what President Biden said this morning, where do you think this leaves Putin's leadership? It appears to be the biggest threat to his hold on Russia in more than 20 years.

WARNER: Well, again, the facts and the images speak for themselves. It is hard to imagine that a Putin of five years ago or 10 years ago, where he seemed to have so much more ironclad control - clearly Vladimir Putin - and this has been well-reported - is more and more isolated, more and more detached. And, again, I think we all have to just watch and see.

SHAPIRO: We have not heard from or seen Russia's defense minister or top military officer. Do you think that's significant? Do you believe they're in trouble?

WARNER: Well, again, that was the request of Prigozhin. And, again, I think probably your listeners have heard, you know, this was all hiding in plain sight. Prigozhin has been making statements about the failures of the Russian military actions in Ukraine, attacking repeatedly both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - their equivalent - and their defense minister by name on Saturday, when he launched this effort. He - this part I do hope the Russian people heard because he was explicitly clear that there had been no pretext for the Putin invasion, that there were - Ukraine was not a hotbed of Nazis or fascists and basically undermined the whole rationale that Putin had given for this invasion.

SHAPIRO: And in our last 30 seconds, when Putin says Wagner mercenaries can join the military and the head of the Wagner group says 98% of those mercenaries don't want to do so, what does that mean for the future of the war in Ukraine?

WARNER: Well, clearly, the Wagner forces have been some of the most active, particularly in the the actions around Bakhmut. I think these are all in the category of we'll have to wait and see. Since Prigozhin had been very clear in repeated public exchanges with the Ministry of Defense that he didn't think his troops wanted to be in that chain of command, it'll be very curious to see how many actually then will sign up to that chain of command.

SHAPIRO: Senator Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Thank you, as always.

WARNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.