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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Wagner Chief Calls Off Mercenaries' March On Moscow; US And Allies Caught Off Guard By Prigozhin's Escalation. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired June 24, 2023 - 21:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back to special coverage of the extraordinary chain of events unfolding in Russia today. Vladimir Putin facing the most serious threat to his hold on power in more than 23 years. Even now, the ultimate outcome for him, for Russia, for Ukraine still uncertain with the world watching, in a deal alleged broken by Belarus. The founder in chief of the Wagner mercenary group, abruptly stopped his fighters' advance on Moscow and apparently pulled at least some fighters out of Rostov-on-Don.

We don't know the status of Wagner forces right now. They had made it to within 120 miles, according to Prigozhin, of the capital when they suddenly decided to turn around. The Kremlin now saying the Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has Putin's word he can go safely to Belarus free of any prosecution. You could see him in the backseat of that SUV being cheered by some folks on the street there in Rostov-on-Don, even want to shake his hand.

Prigozhin saying he made the deal because he didn't want to shed Russian blood.


YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, FOUNDER, WAGNER GROUP (through translation): Therefore, realizing all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed from one of the sides. We turn our columns around and leave in the opposite direction to the field camps, according to the plan.


COOPER: We also see here some of his departing fighters, who seem to get some cheers from residents as they stood on top of the tanks in Rostov-on-Don as well.

So, we have full team coverage for you tonight over the next hour, our team of correspondents, analysts and guests. I want to start with CNN's Nick Robertson and Ivan Watson.

So, Nic, Prigozhin has been seething at Russia's military leadership. We've been watching these videos he's been making for months attacking the Defense Minister Shoigu and others. He claimed that Russian forces had attacked his men, intentionally tried to kill Wagner forces. We don't know if that's true or not. And that's what ostensibly led him to invade the southern Russian cities, the Rostov-on-Don and start advancing on Moscow.

Do we know anything about why he would make this deal? I mean, he says he wouldn't want to shed Russian blood. He certainly seemed pretty bloodthirsty before.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think there's a calculation here or an evaluation that says he overreached. There wasn't readiness in Russia to support him, to overthrow Shoigu and grass him off his deputy, unless still to overthrow Putin at this point. So he overreached there, perhaps overreacted.

He's seen as somebody who can get incredibly emotional. So potentially, if his troops were attacked and he did overreact and he extended himself, he potentially realized his best way to back out of his overreaction and overreach whether he was safe temporarily in Rostov-on-Don, was to find a deal that would allow him to move out of Russia, at least lick his wounds, make his next move.

But again, so much we don't know and we don't know his huge push to get rid of Shoigu. We don't know where that stands. We don't know where Shoigu is, and we don't know if Putin is going to keep him on as Minister of Defense.

COOPER: And the report is that he's been offered to go to Belarus and he'll be safe there. We don't know where Prigozhin is. We've seen that video of him driving away from the video camera in Rostov-on-Don. We have no idea if he left Rostov-on-Don, or even the status of Wagner fighters. We saw some of them seeming to withdraw, but we don't know if they've fully withdrawn it. Is that right?

ROBERTSON: Yes. Look, he's an extremely untrustworthy character. It's amazing anyone thinks that they can make a deal with him that's going to stick. Perhaps he's chastened by the fact that he realizes he's got a pardon and make the most of it, and get somewhere moderately safer like Belarus. But let's face it, Belarus is perhaps no more safe than Russia anyway. Russia's reaches right into Belarus. I mean, they claim to have based their tactical nuclear warheads there at the moment.

Lukashenko, the leader there, is really propped up by Putin, although suddenly Lukashenko looks like the guy who's helping Putin out of a hole. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Putin didn't have a sort of a pre back channel sign off on whatever Lukashenko was doing. None of this really passes any kind of sensible sniff test at all.

COOPER: Ivan, it's extraordinary to me, given that Russia, I mean, the security services in Russia, the oppressive nature of the regime there, that even in that video of Prigozhin with his window rolled down in his SUV and people reaching in to shake his hand. I mean, you would think, given the police presence and the secret police presence in Moscow, and elsewhere in Russia, and particularly in a place like Rostov-on-Don, which has an important military role, that he could have been shot right there.

[21:05:04] I mean, it's stunning to me what appears to be just the lack of organization of the security services in Russia and the military services.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think that is what he has demonstrated so dramatically, is that he could roll his mercenaries into a Russian city and essentially take it over without firing a shot, take over an air base as well, he claims. And then, as he claims, send columns of his forces to within 200 kilometers of Russian capital.

And on top of this, there was a lot of discussion online that, hey, this is going to be another Swan Lake moment, which is referring to the coup attempts of 1991, '93. 1991 more like when Russian state television would just show ballet from Swan Lake on television when things got uncomfortable, rather than talk about what's really happening.

In this case, Russians not only saw what was happening on the streets in front of them, if you happen to be in Rostov or stuck on highways that have been blocked by the security forces, or you saw it on Russian state television, which actually has covered it and is actually saying, hey, the highways to Moscow were blocked. Now they're open again.

They're reporting that Vladimir Putin is saying that this is treachery. This is a betrayal of the state on the scale of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But now Putin has just made a deal with the guy who he was calling a traitor just a couple of hours ago. So this has revealed, certainly, a weakness.

And one that people saw in the 1990s, Anderson, and more recently, with the raids that Ukrainian forces have launched into Russian border areas that have been difficult for the Russian security forces to deal with. And if you think back to the 1990s, Chechen separatists used to go charging into Russia and would take a school hostage or an entire theater in Moscow hostage. And dealing with that was always a terrible, terrible crisis and disaster for the Russian security forces. And that's why this scenario could have been so much worse, potentially, because these were battle hardened mercenaries who also had their ranks filled with convicted criminals.

COOPER: Nic, how badly damaged do you think Vladimir Putin is?

ROBERTSON: Well, it appears as if he's been afraid to deal with Prigozhin in the run up to this. Perhaps afraid to call on a security service to go shoot Prigozhin in the head through the open window of his SUV, fearing what would happen. That there would be a revolt in the town, or more of Prigozhin's people would go on a wild revolt in other parts of Russia. It demonstrates fear.

Putin was the guy who could maintain the power balance with all the oligarchs. He was the one at the center who could be the godfather, who could say, yes, you can run that business. You give me that much. You do that, you do that. He was the balance. Then he went into Ukraine on the premise that he could win it really quickly, completely failed. Then he got stuck in a bit later now in essentially a trench warfare. So he's kind of failed the second go round.

And now he's had this revolt on his streets, which hasn't been seen in Russia in decades. That's on his watch. And this was the guy who was supposed to be, A, so powerful, B, so -- had such a good idea of strategy and control, and now it all appears to evaporate. He is in a much weaker position, and his enemies, who weren't enemies before frenemies maybe, will now see opportunities here.

Prigozhin is not the first in Russia to turn on their sort of advocate and the person that helped them develop their business and become an oligarch. Look, Putin himself, when Boris Berezovsky helped Putin become prime minister and then become president. Putin then turned on Berezovsky, who ultimately fled the country. There's a history of that kind of dynamic. This is what we've witnessed here with Prigozhin.

COOPER: Yes. Nic Robertson, Ivan Watson, I appreciate it. Thank you. So many things to watch for. I'm going to go to CNN's Paula Newton now.

Paula, you lived in Russia for a number of years. You watched Putin come to power. You've had the opportunity to interview him. I'm wondering what your reaction is to this. And do you think that Russians really know what is happening right now? Because they saw the address that Putin made, not naming Prigozhin, but referring to him as -- this is a betrayal, a stab in the back.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I'm sure they found even that pronouncement on state TV incredibly bizarre and yet it happened. And for the rest of the day, I should add, it's not like state TV had rolling coverage and Russians are used to this.


The other thing that happened, Anderson, was that according to NetBlocks, which monitors internet censorship, they said that Google News beginning on Friday night was blocked. That doesn't happen very often in Russia. Apparently it happened quite effectively.

Having said that, if you're the younger generation in Russia, you know how to get around that. If you want news, you'll get it. I was communicating with people in Russia on Signal. I know a lot of people do that.

At issue here, though, Anderson, is how much news they actually want. In talking to people today in cities that were not in the throes of what was going on with Prigozhin, it was unnervingly calm, Anderson, from people I spoke to. They went for strolls in the park, they went to restaurants, they took their kids out, and why there is this resignation that they no longer have any control over what is going on there.

Now, I will say there is a difference between trying to get that news and actually saying something on an internet website or on a chat group that goes against the regime. And we have seen, of course, the Putin administration come down heavily on people that have criticized the Ukraine invasion. Anderson, just picking up on what Ivan and Nic said. This man was brought to power when I was there, between Yeltsin and his reign. It was Chechnya. And having covered the Chechen war with many of my CNN colleagues, this was the bargain. Russians always knew how brutal that fight was, and yet they made a bargain with him because they wanted calm in their own country and they didn't want this chaos. When you see the signs of chaos, you wonder how much longer Putin can keep up that bargain.

And this is not going to be with people in the streets, Anderson. At least that's my estimation. I have wondered for years what it would take to topple this government. It's not going to be that. It's going to be the people that made money at Putin's knees, and are continuing to wonder now how much he has compromised their country and, quite frankly, compromised the kind of lifestyle they've become used to. So, in other words, watch this phase.

COOPER: Yes. Paula Newton, thank you. I appreciate it. A big question tonight, how does Prigozhin's rebellion impact Putin's power? We've been talking about that. I want to bring in former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas.

Evelyn, is Putin at risk? I mean, at this point, 24 hours now, after the beginning of this, how weaker is he and, I mean, is it terminal?

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, Anderson, I think you're asking the key questions. He is clearly weakened. There is blood in the water. I wouldn't be surprised if another member of the elite, one of the security force chiefs, perhaps his national security advisor. Someone else is thinking about possibly replacing him because they've seen that there's an opportunity. I think Prigozhin failed probably because some aspect of his plan, some support, didn't come through. Either that or, as the other correspondents indicated, he really didn't think this through.

COOPER: I mean, I just want to ask you a little bit more about that. Because it's hard to imagine him making this push or having his troops, I should say I don't know that he was -- I doubt he was out in the front, lead vehicle on this. Having his troops move toward Moscow, he raised the spectrum of -- did he hope to have somebody already in, somebody with certain battalion or whatever, maybe indicate that they would help out if they got to Moscow and that didn't happen, and therefore that was one of the reasons he realized. Or he just had a sense that he had overreached?

I mean, there are so many things we don't know, but it's hard to imagine him thinking that he could go to Moscow with the troops he had. What would have been his plan to try to surround the Ministry of Defense and arrest or kill the defense minister? I mean, it just seems hard to imagine.

FARKAS: I mean, Anderson, to be clear, of course we are guessing here. We don't have the inside information. I certainly don't have access to intelligence, although it seems that our intelligence community was aware that Prigozhin was planning something. And the guys who used to work at Bellingcat, who follow all the open source intelligence, they also indicated that they thought he was planning something.

So I think that Prigozhin is not stupid. He probably thought he had lined up more support. The fact that he got as far as he got tells me that he had some support. He sat down with those officials in Rostov in the beginning and then kept proceeding northward. But his plan failed because he didn't get critical support that he needed, probably inside the Kremlin. And I don't mean Putin, I mean people around Putin. That's what I'm guessing.

And his plan B might have been all along to get Lukashenko to bail him out and give him refuge in Belarus, because that's another interesting aspect of all this. Or the Belarusian dictator was just very clever and opportunistic in taking Prigozhin as his prisoner.


COOPER: So, Jill, the Kremlin says Prigozhin gets to go off to Belarus -- yes. Jill, I mean, he gets to go off to Belarus, allegedly, and all charges will be dropped. Do you buy that? Do you think he would even go to Belarus?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Lukashenko and Prigozhin know each other. They've known each other for quite a while, possibly. I mean, it might be a good second step. If your men are disbanded and are going to go into the regular military, it might be a resting place. But Prigozhin, I'm sure he's starting to figure out --

COOPER: Might be a final resting place --

COOPER: Entirely possible, but also, you know, where his next dime is coming from? I mean, this guy is in it for money as well. He's not professional military. And don't forget, he is the troll factory, the person who had the trolls that interfered in the American election a few years ago. He's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. So he might find some other gainful employment being based in Belarus, which is under control of Russia anyway.

COOPER: And, Jill what do you think this does to Putin's leadership in the eyes, not only of the Russians, but of the outside world?

DOUGHERTY: That's a really good question, because I think of Xi Jinping, the leader of China, looking at this, he's already seen Putin botch the war. This is not good I think for any type of respect that the Chinese would have for the Russians, must be in the basement at this point. It is more -- it's really a disaster.

And so it strengthens China. China comes out looking strong in most of this and Russia looking very weak and disorganized, which it really is and chaotic. And then other countries might be looking at Putin, let's say, as a source of selling weapons. North Korea, Iran, they too must be questioning will Putin be in power? It's very unclear. So I think it weakens him domestically, very weak, and internationally.

COOPER: Evelyn, I remember reading an oral history of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and one of the ways he maintained power was keeping everybody around him guessing and kind of at each other's throats and not sure who to trust. It seems like Vladimir Putin has done that. That's one of his strategies as well, allow Prigozhin to be like, one of our guests earlier, it was like rats in a maze, gnawing away at the defense minister, having them at each other's throats and kind of seeing which one keep them divided so that they're not trying to gnaw off Vladimir Putin's limbs.

FARKAS: Right. And he also did that, let's not forget, with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, who also went to Ukraine with his fighters and ended up disgruntled, but left the battlefield and went quiet, at least, when it comes to criticizing the war, certainly didn't get quite to the level of Prigozhin. So, Putin has had a knack in terms of juggling all these different power centers, playing them off against one another. So he stays the man in the middle, the man in control.

But he clearly lost control here. Prigozhin may have overcalculated, of course, but at the same time, Putin must have, too. Putin clearly didn't see this coming. And this is the biggest challenge that he's faced since 2000 when he took control of the country. So there's blood in the water now. There will be people looking to see how they can take advantage of Putin. And that, unfortunately, means that Putin is likely to clamp down even harder on Russian society and to look for culprits now.

COOPER: Yes. Evelyn Farkas, Jill Dougherty, I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Coming up ahead, the impact on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Wagner forces have obviously played a key role in violence in Ukraine. Question is, what role will they play now? And later, how the White House and US allies are reacting to an uncertain, unprecedented 24 hours for Russia and the world?



COOPER: You're watching special coverage of the extraordinary events this weekend out of Russia, and the remarkable threat to the power of the man who has been their president for the past 23 years. CNN Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman has been following all the developments from Zaporizhia in Ukraine. Here's his report.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, what a long, strange day it's been. Starting early with Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claiming to have seized critical military facilities in the city of Rostov-on-Don, including the headquarters of Russia's southern military district, the strategic command center for much of Russia's forces in eastern and southern Ukraine.

For Ukraine, it seemed the enemy was turning upon himself that the ripples of chaos and disorder in Russia would reach the front lines here. Ukrainian officials issued statements to the effect that this was the beginning of the collapse of Russia of a civil war, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even suggesting that Putin was on the run.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE (through translation): The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself. I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow.


WEDEMAN: Wherever he was, everything changed when it was announced that Prigozhin had agreed to stop his march on Moscow and return to base. Saturday evening, Kyiv announced gains in a series offensives around the now Russian occupied town of Bakhmut. But when all is said and done, the sound and fury of Prigozhin's brief insurrection came to naught. Anderson?

COOPER: Yes. And we will see what the next 24 hours brings. Ben Wedeman, reporting from Ukraine, thanks.

More now on how this may play out on the battlefield in Ukraine, I'm joined by retired Army Major Mike Lyons. Major Lyons, appreciate you being with us. I mean, when you consider all that has developed in Russia since Friday, what stands out to you the most about? I mean, what this means for the war in Ukraine, particularly the role of Wagner fighters?


MIKE LYONS, RETIRED ARMY MAJOR: Anderson thanks for having me. I think that it doesn't affect doesn't what's happening on the ground right now in Ukraine in the short term. The question is, what does happen to those Wagner fighters?

They're an independent fighting company. They were given better rations. They dress differently. I don't think they're going to be easily assimilated into the Russian military and sent back to the front there. So I think there's going to be an issue that maybe some will splinter off, maybe some will decide to defect and, let's say, provide information to Ukraine. Those people are loyal to the man, Prigozhin, not to the country, not to the mission for anything like that.

So, I think we've got a lot more questions that have not been answered right now. But I think from that perspective, I think that group splinters up and goes away pretty quickly.

COOPER: Right. I mean, if it's true what we are being told. And again, none of the actors, Prigozhin, you know, the leaders of Belarus, the leaders of Russia are reliable, brokers and honest. So, we have to take everything with a grain of salt. But if we're led to believe that Prigozhin goes to Belarus and no longer is leading the Wagner fighters, and they just get signed contracts with the Russian military. I mean, if I was a Wagner fighter, I would be upset that Prigozhin, who has been making all these videos saying the Russian generals are incompetent, he's now given up all his fighters to be led by these allegedly incompetent Russian generals? It just seems like, to your point, I don't know how do they blend in to the Russian military?

LYONS: Yes. Unless if you go with that crime family analogy and why he was sent to Belarus, I mean, he's an earner within the Russian system. He's had hooks in Africa where Russia is trying to get ahead of the game on rare earth minerals, and he's had an impact on Syria. He's done things in the past, and maybe that's why he got a pass here and didn't, you know, his life was spared at this point.

Maybe they send some of those soldiers back to the rear and they find their way over into those other areas or so. But I just don't see them assimilating. I don't see them going to the front. They've been out of Bakhmut over six weeks now at this point. They're not going back to battle anytime soon.

COOPER: In terms of -- Ukraine had claimed that they had done some counter offensives, trying to take advantage of this situation. We haven't been able to obviously independently confirm that, so it's not clear how effective if they actually did that at all. What do you think the impact of all of this on the regular Russian forces is who are fighting in Ukraine?

LYONS: Anderson, I think Ukraine military has got to focus on two things right now. Number one is gathering as much intelligence from NATO, United States and forces that are there with regard to the weaknesses and what's going on the Russian front and seeing exactly where those spots that they can exploit.

We know there's tremendous defensive belt lines, their counter offensive is not gone, and it's been not necessarily their fault. They don't have air superiority. They're lacking a lot of tactical things that they need. I think they have to start attacking the Russian army in particular.

They report back whether they've taken certain towns back, but every town they take is completely wrecked. They're just flattened. There's not a lot to the real estate. For them to win, they have to attack the Russian army, cut off the Russian army, get large numbers of Russian soldiers to surrender.

We can't say that we can control or they can control any kind of communication that's taking place within the Russian soldiers. We don't know what's going on there. But if they start attacking the Russian soldiers in their place, making it miserable for them, they might have a better chance. And I think they've got to focus along more specific axis of advance and not try to do this across the wide front.

COOPER: Major Mike Lyons, I appreciate your time tonight. Thank you very much.

Coming up ahead, the armed standoff between Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin seems to have stopped as quickly as it started. What we know about the intelligence gathered by the US ahead of the crisis and what they're hearing about what happens next. [21:30:43]


COOPER: The White House says it's closely watching developments in Russia and will not comment further. US intelligence sources say they knew mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was planning something, but sources say that U.S and Western officials were "caught off guard" by today's events and how quickly they unfolded. We've just learned the US has not seen a change in Russia's nuclear posture during the insurrection. CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood is at the State Department.

So, Kylie, what have American diplomats been doing as they've tracked the situation?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, really working the phone calls. I mean, you see, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, had a number of phone calls with his counterparts today, counterparts in the G7, the EU, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine. And when it comes to the official readouts from the State Department, it has really been a message that's been twofold.

First of all, the United States continues to support Ukraine. It's steadfast in that support and it'll continue to work with its allies and its partners to track this situation. What US diplomats are doing behind the scenes is really trying to collect information about what has gone down over the course of the last 24 or 36 hours here, of course, working with US intelligence officials. I think it's important to note, however, that the US diplomatic presence in Moscow, the US embassy in Moscow, those diplomats are still there. That presence remains unchanged. And that's interesting, because what it demonstrates is that as this insurrection was gaining speed, they didn't feel that there was a need to change that posture at all. So that is key.

But what we'll watch to see is if any of those diplomats, over the course of the next few days or so, actually have any interactions with Russian official because thus far, we have not seen any interactions between US. And Russian officials, and publicly, US officials have been very wary to give any sort of readout of how they are reacting to this situation, any kind of analysis of it, because they don't want the US to be seen as being part of this real battle between what is internal factions in Russia right now.

COOPER: And have you heard anything more about the nuclear posture? Our understanding is that -- they haven't seen any change in Russia's nuclear posture.


ATWOOD: Yes. And that's significant, Anderson, because, as you know, President Putin has been saber rattling his nuclear capabilities over the course of the Ukraine war. And the concern for US officials is always when there is a situation that presents more threat to President Putin and his power, does he feel the need to potentially use his nuclear capabilities?

As of right now, as you said, US officials tell me that they haven't seen any change to Russia's nuclear posture as he faces this threat from Prigozhin, which seems to be sort of kind of settling down now but they continue to watch that. And they continue to particularly watch Belarus, because just earlier this month, Putin said that he made his first transfer of tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus. Obviously, that hasn't happened anymore over the course of the last 24-36 hours if there hasn't been a change to Russia's nuclear posture, according to US officials. But they continue to watch that space incredibly closely.

COOPER: Yes, Kylie Atwood. Appreciate it, Kylie, thanks very much.

I want to bring in Catrina Doxsee, an expert on the Wagner Group from the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies. Catrina, if Prigozhin does go to Belarus, which we don't know if that's in fact what's going to happen, what happens to the Wagner Group? Because not only is it the war in Ukraine, but, I mean, they have real, obviously, a huge presence in CAR, in the Central African Republic. They fought in Mozambique, they fought in Namali, a number of places throughout Africa, and they have real financial benefits for Russia and certainly for Prigozhin.

CATRINA DOXSEE, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR AND ASSOCIATE FELLOW, TRANSNATIONAL THREATS PROJECT: I think that's the real question that we're facing now, and likely that Prigozhin himself is facing. We don't know if any discussion about Wagner's activities further abroad were part of that negotiation between Prigozhin and Putin today.

But we do know that, really, the bulk of Wagner's activity and the core of Prigozhin's business empire does sit in Africa, and particularly in Sub-Saharan African states, where Wagner has specifically exchanged its various paramilitary services for access to natural resources like gemstones and gold. So this is in places like Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, although we haven't seen evidence of them exploiting the resources there yet.

And so, I expect that while certainly there's a lot still up in the air, one of Prigozhin big priorities now will be to try to reassert his control over that wider network of Wagner operations and the various shell companies that are connected to him and to Wagner. And that's going to potentially be another stress point with Moscow, because Russia has relied so much on Wagner to be able to spread its different geopolitical and economic goals in Africa.

There potentially could be some competition if Prigozhin can continue to control those operations, or if we see those operations become under a broader state umbrella, if we see someone else step in to replace Prigozhin, and then the potential fallout of a replacement stepping up.

COOPER: I don't know the contract structure for the Wagner Group but, I mean, I certainly know they were recruiting in prisons and having conscripts, and offering them deals. There was a report that Wagner forces would be able to sign contracts with the Russian army to continue to fight in Ukraine. How likely is it -- would Wagner forces have to join the Russian army, or are they free agents? They could not do that. Do you know?

DOXSEE: So, it seems that was really the issue at the core of this mutiny attempt that we saw over the past couple of days. We have the deadline looming. The Ministry of Defense had set a July 1st deadline for Wagner troops to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. And that's something that Prigozhin had just categorically rejected.

What we see in the reported terms of the agreement between Prigozhin and Putin today is that Prigozhin and the sort of core group of his Wagner fighters who are involved in the activities over the past two days will not be forced to sign those contracts. And on the grounds, publicly-stated of their service in Ukraine, they will not be punished for their activities today. That's certainly up for debate. Putin is not someone to forgive lightly.


DOXSEE: But there are opportunities for other members of Wagner who are not involved in these activities to sign on. So in some ways, this is almost an escape hatch for the Wagner troops that did not plan to sign on with the ministry.

COOPER: That's really interesting, and that shows my ignorance. I wasn't aware that they had set a deadline for July, that the Russians had set a deadline for July for Wagner forces, because that says a lot about potential motivation for some of this.


Do you have a sense? You talked about the forces who are involved in the activities. This gives them the option of not signing those contracts. Do you have a sense of numbers of the inner circle, the core group of fighters that are really important to Prigozhin what that would be? How many?

DOXSEE: So we've had a variety of different estimates. Certainly nothing is exact. I've seen numbers reported around 25,000 that were mobilized in some capacity over the past two days. At this point, I don't think that we can put a lot of credibility behind specific numbers. But I would also just cite the fact that while that's looking at troops in the Ukraine Russia area, there are also a large number of troops, a relatively large number of troops involved in activities in Africa and in other countries where Wagner has been active in recent years. So there are others that Prigozhin can continue to fall back on if he can maintain that control.

COOPER: Do you think there's any likelihood that Prigozhin would actually go live in like the Central African Republic? Because in a number of the countries where they're working, Wagner actually has very close relationships with the leaders in those countries. They're training the armed forces. They're providing private security for, in some cases, for the leadership.

DOXSEE: I don't personally see a high likelihood of having Prigozhin move to a place like Bangi anytime soon. We saw even in Ukraine -

COOPER: I've been to Bangi, come on. I've been to Bangi. He could get a big house there, you know.

DOXSEE: I think of those falsified videos of him allegedly on the front lines in Bahkmut in Ukraine that were eventually geolocated far from the lines, I don't see himself him actually putting his own neck on the line.


DOXSEE: But I could certainly see him staging high profile visits, creating propaganda films that claim to be in certain areas. He's the master of manipulation when it comes to information.

COOPER: It is extraordinary to me how he has created this persona of himself, as if he has military history, as if he knows clearly somebody, like, put the walkie-talkie, told him where to put it on his Kevlar vest. I mean, he dresses up, but he's not a soldier himself. So, Catrina Doxsee, I really appreciate your expertise. It's great to talk to you. Thank you.

Working the phones and checking in with allies how the White House is reacting to the chaos and tension in Russia tonight.


COOPER: Well, in the past, President Biden has not shied away from speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's strategically quiet so far today. CNN White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond joins me now live from outside the White House. So, talk about the key concerns about speaking out and not speaking out.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, listen, Anderson, these have been fast moving developments. And over the last 24 hours, White House officials have been really monitoring the developments, both through open source intelligence as well as what intelligence agencies are gathering. But the decision not to speak out is partly tied to the fast moving nature of events, but also because they don't want to give any appearance that the United States is involved or trying to put its finger on the scale of this attempted insurrection that was unfolding inside of Russia.

Instead, what we have seen is US officials quietly behind the scenes monitoring developments, and also President Biden speaking with key allies. He spoke with several NATO allies this morning on the phone, including the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Top US officials, including cabinet officials, have been speaking with their counterparts as well.

Now, listen, the US was caught off guard by how quickly this attempted insurrection by Yevgeny Prigozhin played out. But that's not to say that US officials were entirely surprised. And that's because the US has been keeping a close eye on these simmering tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense. As early as January, the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, he referred to the Wagner Group as becoming a rival power center to the Russian Ministry of Defense. And more recently, US officials got a sense that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group were indeed preparing something.

Now, in terms of when President Biden or the administration are going to break their silence and really weigh in here tomorrow, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, he is slated to appear on several Sunday shows, including CNN State of the Union. We will see what the US assessment is perhaps there is where we will get our first sense. Anderson?

COOPER: All right. Jeremy Diamond, appreciate it. Thanks very much. Many of the videos that we've seen from today's unprecedented events in Russia were first posted to a platform called Telegram. Ahead, a closer look at Wagner's use of social media to spread word of their plans and how it's been exploited for disinformation as well.



COOPER: Perhaps the sign of the times throughout Russia's war against Ukraine, many of the major advances are shared online through Telegram, social media network that's highly popular in the region. I'm joined by David Sanger. He's a CNN Political and National Security Analyst, as well as a White House and National Security Correspondent for the New York Times. David, thanks so much for being with us.

Can you just speak more, a little bit more to Prigozhin's use of Telegram, the platform, to try to get his message out?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's been pretty brilliant, but that shouldn't surprise us given the fact that Prigozhin himself is no amateur when it comes to social media. You'll remember if we just wind the clock back seven years ago, he was running the Internet Research Agency. The group that went out, sent people to the United States to go figure out divisive issues, came back and started posting from the Internet Research Agency on Facebook and elsewhere, efforts to basically send out disinformation and try to get -- to open up divisions within the American body politics.

And they did it very effectively. They declare a protest in one place, and then a counter protest for the same day in the same place, and try to create a small riot. They did this in Texas, they did this in other places. So speed forward seven years and he's using Telegram, a widely-used messaging app and social media app as well. And he's announcing each of his moves, but he's also using it to declare that the Defense Ministry, the Defense Minister, General Gerasimov, the famed head of the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, are corrupt, incompetent. And the amazing thing is, until today, he didn't get shut down.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, it is -- we were talking about this with others earlier, that Vladimir Putin allowed him to have this enmity with the top defense officials and to have them kind of going at each other so that they were not turning -- they were divided, and they did not unite and turn against Vladimir Putin. It's a way to keep the people around him warring with each other as opposed to threatening the leader.

SANGER: I think that was a piece of it, Anderson. I think there was another part of it as well, which is Putin can't be very happy with the Defense Minister Shoigu or with Gerasimov because they were the ones who put together the plan to take over Kyiv and had to abandon that.


They were the ones who went down to plan B, which was just go back to the south and east. And that's where the counter offensive is happening. They're the ones who did not count on the degree to which the Ukrainians would rise up or the West, NATO, the United States would support them.

So, my guess is that Putin had some sympathies with Prigozhin and felt that some of his critiques were probably valid. I mean, we're mind reading here, but he couldn't have been completely unhappy to see this thorn in their side. Then it got to the point where it got too close, because yesterday we're reading on Telegram as Prigozhin announces that if he doesn't get a meeting with Gerasimov and Shoigu, he's marching to Moscow and then started doing exactly that.

And it was only then that Putin comes out and gives the speech and calls him a traitor.

COOPER: Yes. It's just been an extraordinary 24 hours. I mean, there's still so much to learn about what we have just witnessed and obviously so much to look at what's going to be coming in the next 24-48 hours. David Sanger, I appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

And I want to thank everybody for joining me on this special edition of 360. Jim Acosta picks up our coverage next in the CNN Newsroom.