When President Vladimir V. Putin spoke Monday about the rebellion threatening Moscow and his government, he began just as President Biden and his national security advisers anticipated: blaming the United States for fueling the uprising that the Russian leader says , he intended to destroy his country.
“It was precisely this result, fratricide, that Russia’s enemies wanted: both the neo-Nazis in kyiv and their Western patrons and all sorts of domestic traitors,” Putin said. “They wanted Russian soldiers to kill each other, for military personnel and civilians to die, for Russia to lose in the end and our society to be divided, drowning in bloody civil war.”
Just hours earlier, Biden tried to quash that line of argument, seeking to discredit Putin’s claim before it got out of his mouth.
In his first remarks on the riot that captivated his White House and much of the world, Biden said his first step was to gather key allies on a video call because “we had to make sure we didn’t give Putin an excuse” to “blame Putin.” . this in the West or blame this on NATO”.
“We were not involved,” Biden insisted. “We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a fight within the Russian establishment.”
There is no evidence that the United States played any role in the uprising, despite the fact that US officials learned of the impending conflict days before it began to unfold. But Putin’s arguments that it was a Western plot could well accelerate in the coming weeks, officials say, in part because NATO is convening an annual summit in two weeks in Vilnius, Lithuania, just 20 miles from the border. with Belarus. where Mr. Putin says that he is about to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. It will be the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that the Russians have based part of their arsenal outside the country.
The meeting has been planned for a long time. But the top item on the agenda is how to make political promises to Ukraine about how, and perhaps when, it could expect to join NATO. It was such a drift toward the West, and toward the alliance, that contributed to Putin’s campaign to invade the country last year.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, anticipating and undermining Russian information operations has been a key element of Biden’s strategy.
That is why the president, despite the objection of many in the intelligence agencies, decided to quickly declassify the intelligence in the fall of 2021 that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine. He was behind American efforts to collect evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha, and Ukrainian efforts to warn of Russian plots to cause some kind of radiation incident at the now-decommissioned Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant they occupy. the Russian forces.
But as the uprising led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin unfolded, the White House quickly concluded that it had to preempt what one senior official called an “inevitable” argument by Putin that the uprising was serving the interests of adversaries. of Russia, even if it was not devised by them.
Biden and his allies agreed over the weekend to a common line of argument: that Putin created this crisis with his hasty decision to invade a sovereign neighbor, and now he was paying the price.
“Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were at the gates of Kiev in the Ukraine, thinking they would take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would wipe Ukraine off the map as an independent country,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday in CBS’s “Face the Nation,” in the administration’s first comments on the chaos in Russia.
Then, twisting the knife a bit, he added: “Now, during this weekend, they have had to defend Moscow, the capital of Russia, against mercenaries created by Putin.” He went on to say that Mr. Prigozhin had “raised deep questions on the very premises of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO posed no threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative.” .
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, was in Lithuania on Monday to prepare for the meeting, telling reporters that “the events of the weekend are Russia’s internal affairs and yet another demonstration of the huge strategic mistake the president made.” Putin with his illegal annexation. Crimea and the war against Ukraine”.
But then he went on to describe Putin as seriously injured. “Of course, it’s a show of weakness,” he said. “It shows the fragility of the Russian regime, but it is not up to NATO to intervene on these issues. That is a Russian matter.”
Biden has reasons to be reluctant to become a section that encourages the uprising. First, he did not want to support the brutal Mr. Prigozhin, a mercenary leader who is under US-imposed sanctions. (The Treasury Department was going to announce more sanctions, but it seems they were delayed, so as not to be seen as helping Putin.)
But White House officials also did not want to appear as if they were easing Putin’s pain. For months they have been waiting for any sign of a crack in the Russian leader’s grip on power; when they finally got one, it was more like a geological fault line. Mr. Biden stressed Monday that he had no idea what was coming next.
“We are going to continue to assess the consequences of the events of this weekend,” Biden said of the implications for Russia and Ukraine. “But it’s still too early to make a definitive conclusion about where this is headed. The end result of all this remains to be seen.”