British Spy Master Says Putin Cut Deal With Wagner Mercenary Chief

From a New York Times story by Megan Specia and Julian E. Barnes headlined “British Spy Master Says Putin Cut Deal With Wagner Mercenary Chief”:

The chief of Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6, said on Wednesday that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had “cut a deal” with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, during Mr. Prigozhin’s failed rebellion last month.

The comments from Richard Moore, the head of MI6, in a rare speech in Prague at an event hosted by Politico, offer insights from a Western intelligence official into the stunning but short-lived revolt by Mr. Prigozhin last month.

The Wagner leader staged a mutiny against Russia’s military last month, which saw his mercenary forces marching toward the capital before abruptly halting. More than two weeks later, the Kremlin disclosed that Mr. Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders had met with Mr. Putin for three hours in the days after the rebellion ended.

“I think he probably feels under some pressure,” Mr. Moore said of Mr. Putin, speaking at the British ambassador’s residence in the Czech capital. “Prigozhin was his creature, utterly created by Putin, and yet he turned on him. He really didn’t fight back against Prigozhin; he cut a deal to save his skin using the good offices of the leader of Belarus.”

Mr. Moore also reflected on the head-spinning nature of the Wagner forces’ sudden march toward Moscow, the swiftness with which they stopped, and Mr. Prigozhin’s seeming escape — so far — from the grim fate of many Kremlin critics.

His location has been largely uncertain since the revolt. Mr. Prigozhin is known to have spent several days in Russia afterward, and video posted on the Telegram messaging app on Wednesday appears to show him in Belarus. The New York Times verified that the video was taken on Tuesday night at a makeshift Wagner camp about 50 miles southeast of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

“Prigozhin started off that day as a traitor at breakfast, he had been pardoned by supper, and then a few days later, he was invited for tea,” Mr. Moore told the audience. “So, there are some things that even the chief of MI6 finds a little bit difficult to try and interpret, in terms of who’s in and who’s out.”

Last week, Mr. Putin said that Wagner troops could continue fighting alongside the Russian Army in Ukraine, but without their leader.

“He is clearly under pressure,” Mr. Moore said of Mr. Putin. “You don’t have a group of mercenaries advance up the motorway toward Rostov and get to within 125 kilometers of Moscow unless you have not quite predicted that was going to happen.”

Mr. Moore was not the only British official weighing in on Mr. Putin’s situation on Wednesday. James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign minister, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, said that no matter “how Putin attempts to spin it, an attempted coup is never a good look.”

He also said that the details of fissures among the Russian elites were limited, but that there are “indicators that things are not well.”

Russia ultimately withdrew from Afghanistan because internal Russian pressure became insurmountable, Mr. Cleverly said, referring a decade-long conflict that ended in 1989. “And we are seeing some of the evidence that a similar thing is happening.”

Mr. Cleverly said the rebellion underscored the falsity of Mr. Putin’s assertions that Russia would be more committed to the war in Ukraine than the West would be. “It proved the lie that underpins Putin’s strategic rationale, that he was willing to grind it out and no one else is willing to ground it out,” he said.

“What Prigozhin said out loud is what we all instinctively knew: This was an entirely unjustified and uncalled-for invasion. This was driven by the ego and ambition of Vladimir Putin. There was never any risk or threat to the Russian homeland or the Russian people.”

Megan Specia is an international correspondent for The Times, based in London, covering the United Kingdom and Ireland. Since early 2022, she has also covered the war in Ukraine. She joined The Times in 2016.

Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal.

Here’s the Politico story headlined “007 things the chief of M16 told Politico” The opening grafs:

On the 55th anniversary of the Prague Spring, the head of Britain’s secret intelligence service sat down with POLITICO’s Anne McElvoy — a journalist with deep experience reporting from behind the Iron Curtain — to talk about Russia, Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, China and AI in spycraft.

In the rare exclusive interview, Richard Moore issued a thinly veiled recruitment call to Russians who’ve become disillusioned with their leadership while assessing that President Vladimir Putin was “under pressure” internally after a mutiny by mercenaries exposed his weakness.

“Join hands with us — our door is always open,” Moore — known as “C” inside the agency — said in a speech at a POLITICO event hosted by the British embassy in Prague.

The MI6 chief, who rose to lead the agency in 2020 after a career in diplomacy, repeatedly referred to Prague’s history as a center of resistance against Russian dominance as a parallel to current times. While the city’s students led an uprising against Soviet occupiers that was brutally repressed by Russian tanks, the Czech Republic — long known as a playground for spies — is now a member of NATO and the EU, as well as a robust supporter of Ukraine.

“When we were thinking about me coming here, it seemed a very good place to speak about Ukraine in particular. The parallels are so strong, aren’t they?” he said. “This is the last European country to see Russian tanks rolling across its border and that is where Ukraine finds itself.”

Moore offered an upbeat assessment of the battlefield situation in Ukraine, noting that Kyiv’s forces had taken back more ground in the past month than the Russians had done in a year. And he issued a warning to African leaders who are relying on Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner PMC mercenary army, to keep them in power.

“If Russian mercenaries can betray Putin, who else might they betray?” he said in the speech, the only public one he plans to give this year.

Moore’s remarks come as MI6 is increasing its public outreach efforts. Founded under another name before World War I, MI6 — Britain’s equivalent to the U.S.’s CIA, whereas MI5 is more like the FBI — operated for many years completely out of public view. The British government only officially acknowledged its existence in 1994.

During those years in the shadows, a rich lore developed around the spy agency and its cadre of secret agents — thanks in large part to authors such as Graham Greene and John Le Carré, and the iconic James Bond 007 character invented by Ian Fleming….

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