U.S. Allies Warily Watch Chaos in Russia

From a Wall Street Journal story by Drew Hinshaw, Laurence Norman, and William Mauldin headlined “U.S. Allies Warily Watch Chaos in Russia”:

The U.S. and its European allies were scrambling Saturday to gain a clear picture of events inside Russia, trading information and analysis in hastily arranged video meetings as the political stability of a global nuclear power hung in the balance.

Western officials said their overriding priority was to make clear they weren’t involved in the unfolding clash between Russia’s army and the private mercenary group Wagner. To that end, the U.S. State Department sent a message to its overseas missions to convey to host governments: “The United States has no intention of involving itself in this matter.” A senior European official said Western capitals were also avoiding military to military coordination on events in Russia.

On Saturday, the Wagner paramilitary group, which has been fighting in Ukraine and is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an erstwhile ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seized the southern Russian city of Rostov and began moving on Moscow. Putin said he ordered his military to act against Wagner, describing its actions as treason that put the country’s survival in peril.

The stability of Russia, a top nuclear power, and the effectiveness of its armed forces are of great interest to all major powers. French President Emmanuel Macron has said publicly that the West isn’t seeking regime change and that any of the potential successors to Putin could mean a further deterioration in relations. The White House, too, has repeatedly said it wasn’t the U.S.’s goal to force Putin from power.

With one-sixth of the world’s land area, the country figures into diplomatic calculations from Beijing to Brussels. On the other hand, some U.S. officials have said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could end up weakening the country and preventing it from attacking neighbors, while some American lawmakers have expressed hopes that Putin could be driven from power.

Throughout the war, capitals on Europe’s eastern flank have been more hopeful than Washington that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could backfire and spell the end of his 23-year rule. Officials in the region say Russia is in a critical period during which Putin must reassert control and assure elites of his continued hold on power. Even if he succeeds, he would emerge weaker than before Prigozhin’s uprising.

“This is the moment, the crucial moment for his political future,” said Rainer Saks, former head of Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. “His authority is going down, that’s absolutely for sure. His power is very much based on his personality, this isn’t a case where you can stay hidden, it’s impossible…And he is losing his respect.”

In Washington, President Biden was first briefed Friday evening, a National Security Council spokesman said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken with his counterparts in the Group of Seven industrialized nations and European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell.

“The United States will stay in close coordination with Allies and partners as the situation continues to develop,” he said on Twitter.

Overnight Friday into Saturday, the State Department sent a message to U.S. embassies abroad instructing them not to engage with host governments on events in Russia.

“Regarding host governments, chief of missions and embassy staff should not pro-actively engage host government officials without prior authorization from Washington,” the message said. “Missions should not respond directly to any press inquiries.”

One senior European official said officials in Ukraine were telling allies that the situation in Russia could provide an opening in the war. However it wasn’t clear whether Kyiv, which has slowed its recent offensive against Russian forces, would seek to accelerate it again in coming days.

U.S. allies along Russia’s borders were attempting to ascertain what was under way not just in Russia, but in neighboring Belarus, whose political fortunes are closely aligned with Moscow’s. In Estonia, officials were ramping up border deployments, preparing for any potential exodus of Russian exiles or the possibility of chaos spilling over into the NATO country. In Warsaw, Poland’s prime minister, president and defense ministers met for emergency consultations, followed by discussions with their NATO allies, officials said.

“The course of events beyond our eastern border is monitored on an ongoing basis,” Poland President Andrzej Duda tweeted, Saturday.

Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus for 29 years, has aligned his government with Putin’s, while simultaneously trying to refrain from sending troops to help Russia in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Putin announced he had stationed tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, as a message to the West.

Putin and Lukashenko spoke by phone on Saturday morning, Belarusian state media outlet Belta said. Separately, Col. Valery Sakhashchyk, a former commander of Belarus’s 38th Independent Air Assault Brigade, who fought Russia on the side of Ukraine, delivered an online message to the Belarusian military, calling for the defense of Belarus against Russia and what he called the pro-Russian regime of Lukashenko. He ordered the soldiers to wait for a signal from the opposition authorities in exile.

While all eyes were focused on events in Russia, U.S., Ukrainian and European officials are meeting in Denmark this weekend with representatives of some of the leading neutral powers over the war in an effort to build support for Ukraine’s terms for peace. Among the countries represented are India, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, said people familiar with the meeting. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is due to represent Washington.

It wasn’t clear if China would be represented. At times since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, there have been hints of criticism of the Kremlin by the likes of India. Any sharper criticism of Putin’s handling of the war would provide a fresh blow to Russia’s invasion.

Alan Cullison and Karolina Jeznach contributed to this article.

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