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Revolt by Wagner Group raises questions about consequences for Putin

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today, Moscow lifted all restrictions imposed over the weekend during the short-lived revolt by the Russian Wagner mercenary group against the Russian government. Now, while the rebellion was abruptly stopped after a deal was struck, it has raised questions about potential long-term consequences for Russian President Vladimir Putin. For more, we turn to Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov. He's co-founder of the Russian secret services watchdog website, Agentura, and a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Good morning.

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Morning, Leila.

FADEL: So this was seen as a challenge to Putin's authority. How does this revolt affect Putin's standing at home and abroad?

SOLDATOV: Well, certainly - well, it made Putin seem really weak because, well, Putin's been talking about national sovereignty. And because of this crisis, he got his minor partner, Aleksandr Lukashenko, president of Belarus - getting involved, fixing Putin's problem with his pal, which doesn't look good.

FADEL: Yeah. So you're referring to the deal that was struck by the president of Belarus. Now, Putin, before this deal was struck, accused his longtime ally and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin of treason and then let him go to Belarus without facing charges. Why? And what do you think that says?

SOLDATOV: I think the problem here is that Prigozhin is still an asset for Putin. It was quite interesting that almost immediately Putin's spokesperson, Peskov, said that all criminal charges against Prigozhin will be dropped, which means that financial activities and all kinds of activities of Prigozhin's companies - and we are talking not only about the Wagner Group, but we are talking, for instance, of a troll factory which was involved at attack in U.S. election in the fall 2016, most famously. They are still operational. They still can go as if nothing ever happened.

FADEL: Interesting. So in some ways what you're saying, this shows really the power of the Wagner Group. I mean, Putin accused him of treason, called it a stab in the back of Russia and then quickly backed down. Does this weaken him and his position?

SOLDATOV: Yes, I think so, because it means that right now the people he trusted with protecting his political stability and his political regime - I mean, the Russian security services and the army - they all sort of - they have this thought that, look, it's better not to interfere if there is some sort of dispute in the inner circle of Putin because - well, at some moment, these guys - we still can strike a deal. And we do not - to be the people who would be blamed for bloodshed. And that is why the Russian security services and the army was so hesitant and actually chose to wait and see. And it looks like they were absolutely right.

FADEL: Prigozhin has now directly challenged Putin's justification for invading Ukraine. How might that affect how Russians see the war?

SOLDATOV: Well, it is quite strange that even the citizens of Rostov-on-Don were quite cheerful about the Wagner Group presence in the city, and it looks like Prigozhin still is quite popular among the Russians and - but - well, to some extent, even in the army.

FADEL: That's Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov of the website Agentura.

Thank you for your time.

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