Biden and Putin Have Dueling Messages on the Mutiny in Russia

When President Vladimir V. Putin spoke on Monday about the rebellion that threatened Moscow, and his rule, he started just as President Biden and his national security aides anticipated: blaming the United States for cheering on the uprising that the Russian leader said was intended to tear his country apart.

“It was precisely this outcome — fratricide — that Russia’s enemies wanted: both the neo-Nazis in Kyiv, and their Western patrons, and all sorts of national traitors,” Mr. Putin said. “They wanted Russian soldiers to kill each other, so that military personnel and civilians would die, so that in the end Russia would lose, and our society would split, choked in bloody civil strife.”

Just a few hours before, Mr. Biden tried to choke off that line of argument, seeking to discredit Mr. Putin’s contention before it came out of his mouth.

In his first comments on the mutiny that captivated his White House and much of the world, Mr. Biden said his first move was to gather key allies on a video call because “we had to make sure we gave Putin no excuse” to “blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO.”

“We were not involved,” Mr. Biden insisted. “We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”

There is no evidence that the United States played any role in the uprising, even though American officials caught wind of the impending conflict days before it began to unfold. But Mr. Putin’s arguments that this was a Western plot may 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 or so from the border of Belarus, where Mr. Putin says 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 long planned. But the lead item on the agenda is how to word political promises to Ukraine about how, and perhaps when, it might expect to join NATO. It was just such a drifting to the West, and toward the alliance, that contributed to Mr. Putin’s drive 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 Mr. Biden’s strategy.

That was why the president, over the objection of many in the intelligence agencies, decided to rapidly declassify intelligence in the fall of 2021 that Mr. Putin was planning to invade Ukraine. It lay behind American efforts to gather 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-deactivated Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russian forces occupy.

But as the uprising led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin unfolded, the White House quickly concluded that it had to get ahead of what one senior official called an “inevitable” argument by Mr. Putin that the uprising was serving the interests of Russia’s adversaries, even if it was not devised by them.

Mr. Biden and his allies settled over the weekend on a common line of argument: that Mr. Putin created this crisis with his rash decision to invade a sovereign neighbor, and now he was paying the price.

“Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, thinking they’d take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday on 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, over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making.” He went on to say that Mr. Prigozhin had “raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative.”

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, was in Lithuania on Monday to prepare for the meeting and told reporters that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter, and yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President Putin made with his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine.”

But then he went on to describe Mr. Putin as badly wounded. “Of course, it is a demonstration of weakness,” he said. “It demonstrates the fragility the Russian regime, but it is not for NATO to intervene in those issues. That’s a Russian matter.”

Mr. Biden has reason to be reluctant to become a cheering section for the uprising. First, he did not want to back the brutal Mr. Prigozhin, a mercenary leader who is under sanctions imposed by the United States. (More sanctions were set to be announced by the Treasury Department but seem to have been delayed, so as not to be seen as aiding Mr. Putin.)

But White House officials also did not want to appear to be easing Mr. Putin’s pain. For months now they have been awaiting any signs of fissures in the Russian leader’s hold on power; when they finally got one, it was more like a geologic fault line. Mr. Biden stressed on Monday that he had no idea what was next.

“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events,” Mr. Biden said about the implications for Russia and Ukraine. “But it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going. The ultimate outcome of all this remains to be seen.”

David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.”  @SangerNYT Facebook

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