QUESTION: Joining us now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here. You’ve been briefed this morning. What can you tell us about the very latest in the situation on the ground in Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Jon, look, it’s still a moving picture and I doubt we’ve seen the last act, and I also don’t want to speculate because it is something that continues to move. But I think we can say this much: First, we’ve seen some very serious cracks emerge. You have Prigozhin publicly questioning the very premise for this Russian aggression against Ukraine in the first place, the notion that somehow Ukraine or NATO presented a threat to Russia. You have someone challenging Putin’s leadership very publicly and very open – and very openly. And of course, if you put this in context, 16 months ago Putin was on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine looking to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map. Now, he’s had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against a mercenary of his own making.
So I think this is clearly – we see cracks emerging. Where they go, if anywhere, when they get there, very hard to say. I don’t want to speculate on it, but I don’t think we’ve seen the final act.
QUESTION: So it sounds like you’re saying this is not over. I mean, it seems hard to believe that Putin, who is known for executing his critics, would allow Prigozhin to move away as a free man – amnesty. I mean, what are you – is the rebellion really over?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So much that is beneath the surface has now surfaced again in terms of questioning the very premises for the war, in terms of questioning the conduct of the war, in terms of questioning what good this has actually done for Russia. And of course, it’s been exactly the opposite. This has been a devastating strategic failure for Putin across virtually every front – economic, military, geopolitical standing – and fundamentally, what it’s done or not done for the Russian people.
Having said that, Putin of course has put in place a state that’s designed around him with control of the media, control of the information space. So again, I don’t think it’s right for us to speculate on where this may go. We are intensely focused on Ukraine, which we’ve been all along, and that is making sure they have what they need to defend the country and to take back territory that’s been seized from them by Russia over the last 16 months. That’s where our focus is.
QUESTION: Have you spoken to your Russian counterpart? Have you spoken to Lavrov?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I have not, but others in the administration have spoken to Russian counterparts, primarily because we want to make sure that Russia understands its obligation to look out for the well-being of American citizens and our personnel who are in Russia. They have obligations to do that. We wanted to make sure that those were front and center as this was all unfolding.
QUESTION: Has the President tried to reach out to Putin?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: He has not.
QUESTION: And what surprised you, what surprised the administration more – the rebellion itself or how quickly it seemed to end?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, on one level I don’t think this was a surprise. I think everyone has seen the rising tensions over many months from Prigozhin, who has very publicly criticized, questioned, raised issues in ways that I think were very striking. And so you could see this – these – this tension mounting, mounting, mounting. And again, Jon, I don’t want to speculate about where this may go. There still may be other chapters. Our focus has to be and remains resolutely on Ukraine.
The President, yesterday, got immediately – not only brought his national security cabinet together, but brought together the leaders of our key allies and partners. There is absolute unity, both of purpose and in action, in terms of supporting Ukraine, making sure they have what they need to defend themselves. And that’s where our focus is; that’s where the President’s focus has been.
QUESTION: And is this – on balance, does it look like a positive development for the world, for Ukraine, because it shows chaos and weakness in Moscow, or are you concerned about the real dangers of instability in Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it can be – it can be both at once. To the extent that the Russians are distracted and divided, it may make their prosecution of the aggression against Ukraine more difficult. On the other hand, of course when you have instability of any kind in a major country like Russia, a major power, that is cause for concern. So it’s something that we’re watching very, very carefully.
QUESTION: And Prigozhin’s forces were among the most brutally effective in Ukraine. What happens to them now? I mean, are they moving out with him? Are they being kind of taken in by the Russian military? What happens?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The short answer is we don’t know, which is why, again, speculating on what comes next is probably not the smartest thing to do. There are lots of unanswered questions, including the questions of what happens to Prigozhin’s forces. Do they remain in Ukraine? I mean, we saw the extraordinary image of these forces coming out of Ukraine and going into Russia just yesterday.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we simply don’t know. But again, that doesn’t change our focus, and our focus remains on Ukraine in making sure that it can defend itself effectively against this ongoing Russian aggression. That’s where the focus is.
QUESTION: And will Ukraine be able to take advantage of that instability, of that uncertainty? I mean, this is —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well —
QUESTION: The offensive is – the counteroffensive is underway.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The counteroffensive —
QUESTION: And it’s been going slowly by – according to some —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, these are early – these are early days for the counteroffensive.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And there has been a lot of focus on making sure that the Ukrainians have what they need to be as successful as possible on the ground, and we’ll see how that unfolds over the coming weeks and even coming months. But again, to the extent this presents a distraction, a loss of focus for the Russians, that may help the Ukrainians on the battlefield. We have to remain, and we are – and this is not just the United States. This is dozens of countries around the world who have been supporting Ukraine, that the President brought together again just yesterday to make sure that we maintain the unity that we’ve had that’s been extremely successful in supporting the Ukrainians.
QUESTION: Do you have any sense of what Prigozhin was offered to turn around? I mean, he was, by some accounts, about 125 miles from Moscow. What did he get in return for this besides amnesty?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t know, and I’m not sure we’ll fully know, or it may be something that unfolds in the coming – in the coming days and weeks. We simply don’t have a clear picture of that. And this really is fundamentally an internal matter for the Russians. We’re seeing it unfold. Again, we saw the rising tensions over – over a – over several months that led to this. But exactly where this goes, we don’t know.
But what we do know is that we’ve seen real cracks emerge – again, a direct challenge to Putin’s authority surfacing very publicly: the notion that this war, this aggression by Russia was being pursued under false pretenses; the notion that Ukraine or NATO somehow presented a threat to Russia that it had to deal with militarily. That’s now much more out in the open than it’s been. What that leads to, again, we just don’t know at this point.
QUESTION: How do you explain that? Prigozhin was the one that was pushing aggressively for a harder line in Ukraine to take – he wanted more resources. He was responsible, again, for some of the few victories the Russians have had there. And now he sounds like an anti-war – a critic of the war itself, like you said, questioning the very basis for the war.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I can’t put myself in Prigozhin’s head, which is probably a good thing.
QUESTION: Yeah, probably. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I mean, keep in mind: Just like Putin, he’s been responsible for horrible brutality in Ukraine against innocent Ukrainian civilians. In country after country in Africa, where Wagner is present, and wherever it’s present, death and destruction and exploitation follows. So I can’t put myself in his head. And he is in many ways a creation of Putin and a creation of Putin that was useful to Putin in Ukraine because Wagner was throwing more and more people into a meat grinder that Putin made himself, and that was useful because the regular Russian forces weren’t able to do the same thing.
So again, where this – what has actually caused this apparent split and where it goes from here, we can’t speculate. Our focus is and will remain on Ukraine itself and making sure we’re helping the Ukrainians.
QUESTION: And finally, Mr. Secretary, what does it say about Putin’s hold on power? I mean, he seemed to have an iron grip over Russia just a week ago. What do you think now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It raises lots of questions that we don’t have answers to. As I said before, I think you see cracks of different kinds that have emerged. These are in a sense different in that it’s internal. When you’re being challenged from within, as Putin has been over the last few days, that also raises profound questions. But we’ve seen, I think, lots of different cracks that have emerged in the conduct of this aggression, because everything Putin has tried to accomplish, the opposite has happened. Russia is weaker economically. It’s weaker militarily. Its standing in the world has plummeted. It’s managed to strengthen and unite NATO. It’s managed to alienate and unite Ukrainians. It’s managed to get Europe off of dependence on Russian energy.
In piece after piece, issue after issue, what Putin has tried to prevent, he’s managed to precipitate. And Russia’s standing is vastly diminished as a result. Now, add to that internal dissention. Again, we can’t speculate on where this goes. We have to remain and we are focused on Ukraine, but it certainly raises new questions that he’s going to have to address.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you very much for your time this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Jon.