Payback could still be on the way for Yevgeny Prigozhin after he led his Wagner mercenaries in an armed rebellion against Russia’s military commanders, CIA Director William Burns said Thursday.
Almost a month has passed since Prigozhin’s mutiny, which Burns described as the “most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power.” Although the mercenary boss has so far apparently escaped the grim fate that has been meted out to others who dared to challenge Putin’s authority, Burns says Putin could just be biding his time before exacting revenge.
“I think in many ways, it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built,” Burns said of the Wagner mutiny at the Aspen Security Forum. He added that he found it “remarkable” that despite the uprising, “Putin felt compelled to do a deal with his former caterer,” referring to Prigozhin, the warlord dubbed “Putin’s Chef.”
But even though a deal was agreed to end the crisis, the CIA chief said he believes Putin may just be waiting to mount an attempt to separate Prigozhin from Wagner. The mercenary force, Burns said, has been valuable to Putin throughout his invasion of Ukraine and remains useful to him in Syria and Libya.
Burns also commented on a quote from President Joe Biden in which he said, if he were Prigozhin, “I’d be careful what I ate,” joking that he could be poisoned by Putin. “What we’re seeing is a very complicated dance between Prigozhin and Putin,” Burns said. “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold, so he’s gonna try to settle the situation to the extent he can.”
“But again in my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” Burns continued. “So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this, so in that sense the president’s right. If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster.”
The CIA boss also commented on Prigozhin’s movements in the wake of the mutiny after a video emerged purporting to show him in Belarus. “He’s moved around a bit,” Burns said. “He’s been in Minsk lately. I’m not sure he has any plans to retire in the suburbs of Minsk. But he’s spent time in Russia as well.”
Burns confirmed suspicions that his intelligence agency “knew things ahead of time” relating to the mutiny but refused to go into specifics about what information the CIA had obtained.
He further talked up the success of a CIA recruitment video widely circulated on Telegram that called for the Russians disillusioned with the Kremlin to talk to American intelligence. “We had two-and-a-half million views of that Telegram video in the first week it was on,” Burns said. “The truth is, there’s a lot of disaffection in Russia in the elite, and outside it, in Russia right now. We’re not wasting the opportunity as an intelligence service to try to take advantage of it.”