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The Situation Room
Prigozhin Says He's Ending March To Moscow; Zelenskyy Says Wagner Group's Mutiny Shows Russia's Weakness; White House Closely Monitoring Power Struggle In Russia; Russia Accuses Wagner Chief Of "Armed Rebellion"; Putin Calls Wagner Chief A "Traitor"; Prigozhin Says Kremlin "Tricked" Russia Into War; Interview With Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO); Russians Attempt To Find Sources Of Info Outside Of Putin's Controlled Media. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired June 24, 2023 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, an apparent, an apparent, stunning turnaround in Russia. The head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says he's turning his forces around from a march toward Moscow potentially ending an apparent military insurrection in the Russian capital. But it remains very much unclear whether the most significant challenge to Vladimir Putin during his 23 years in power in Russia is truly over.
That announcement, by the way, of the pullback comes as officials from neighboring Belarus claim successful talks with the Wagner chief to stop the military columns' advance. U.S. officials say they're closely monitoring this still-unfolding situation in Russia, and that President Biden is being continually updated by his top national security team.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in London, and this is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
BLITZER: Our correspondents and analysts are standing by to bring you full coverage of these major developments that are unfolding right now like only CNN can.
Let's go straight first to our chief international security correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.
Nick, these are really fast-moving developments, historic moments right now unfolding. What's the latest?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes. We have a full 180 from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, moving quietly into the major southern military city of Rostov-on-Don, in his words being 200 kilometers later in the day on the outskirts of Moscow, the main capital city, to suddenly now saying indeed he's decided to turn around his forces and put them in field camps, and images emerging of those same forces in fact leaving Rostov possibly to go back towards Ukraine.
A startling day which still at this point doesn't make an awful lot of sense. And in fact, we're getting more information of the Kremlin's take on what's happened today from the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, who has come out and said that Yevgeny Prigozhin after leaving his armed forces it seems almost to within distance of Moscow where they were a palpable threat to the capital has, in fact, decided to go and live in Belarus.
Now we haven't heard from Yevgeny Prigozhin about that. But Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, in extensive comments explaining what happened here, suggested that in fact this deal have been brokered by the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who've long known Prigozhin, and went on to suggest that Wagner fighters who'd taken part in this march may get some sort of immunity.
They won't be pursued, he's saying, because of their heroism on the frontlines. So there have been a lot of the most vicious fighting involved and was well recognized. He went on to say, though, that Wagner fighters who weren't part of this particular insurrection -- that's a phrase used by the Kremlin today -- would in fact be given the opportunity to fight for the Russian Ministry of Defense. And none of this would impact Russia's operations inside of Ukraine.
Frankly, hard to really square Dmitry Peskov's comments about where we all are right now, and what we've seen throughout the day. Helicopters shot out of the sky it seems. Wagner very freely advancing, almost halfway to Moscow if not further on judging by statements from local officials. Unimpeded, frankly, as they move, looking like they were possibly going to arrive in the capital and pose a genuine military threat to a Russian heartland now which is stripped bare of its normal defensive forces who are currently fighting inside Ukraine.
So a very confusing 24 hours. It certainly leaves us aware that Putin is not as in control of Russia as he was 24 hours ago. It's going to be hard for the Kremlin to walk back the statements they've made about Yevgeny Prigozhin being a traitor and needing inevitable punishment that far. So it would appear they are trying to do just that. And we have to hear from Yevgeny Prigozhin whether or why he got as close as the capital as he indeed did, and now apparently he's decided to pack it all in and go and live in Belarus. Utterly, utterly confusing events -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. This drama is by no means over, not yet.
Nick Paton Walsh reporting, thank you so much.
I want to bring in our CNN national security reporter, Natasha Bertrand, who's joining us live from the Pentagon right now.
Natasha, U.S. intelligence I understand believes Prigozhin had been planning a major challenge to Russia's military leadership for quitter some time. What more are learning about all of this?
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. So my colleagues Alex Marquardt, Jim Sciutto and I did learn that U.S. intelligence officials have been tracking the potential for Yevgeny Prigozhin to conduct some kind of major challenge to Russia's military leadership.
And they actually briefed congressional leaders known as the Gang of Eight on these potential plans by Prigozhin earlier this week. Now it is unclear to U.S. officials and it was unclear at the time that they briefed congressional leaders what exactly that would look like. Would Prigozhin actually take his forces and storm a Russian city? They simply did not know at the time how this challenge to Russian military leadership would actually take place because, of course, they have been monitoring very closely over the last several months this ongoing power struggle between Prigozhin and Russian military leadership, and there have been threats back and forth between the two groups.
But it was never clear just how far Prigozhin would actually take this, Wolf. Now we are learning that U.S. officials did see signs in recent days that Prigozhin was massing equipment, massing forces, very near Russia in a way that was deemed concerning by U.S. intelligence officials. The speed, though, with which this occurred did catch U.S. officials off guard. We saw the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, cancel a planned trip to the Middle East so that he could stay in Washington to brief President Biden on all these events.
National Security adviser Jake Sullivan was also planning to travel this weekend to Denmark to attend a conference. He canceled that, and he instead participated in that conference virtually. U.S. officials across the government convened emergency meetings on Friday night to try to figure out what was happening and how this would all unfold. So clearly the U.S. officials and Western officials still trying to get their arms around these very fast-moving developments here.
There was some intelligence suggesting that Prigozhin might be willing to do something dramatic, but very few if any anticipated that he'd be willing to go this far -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon for us. We'll get back to you. Thank you very much.
As Russia was dealing with a possible coup attempt, Ukraine has been making moves out there on the battlefield. This is significant.
CNN's Ben Wedeman is joining us now live from Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, in the war zone.
Ben, I understand Ukraine has launched what are being described as simultaneous counteroffensives on several Russian fronts. Give us the latest.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is what we heard, Wolf, from the deputy defense minister of Ukraine who said that they had launched offensives in several directions in the area of Bakhmut. Now I think perhaps offensives is perhaps not the right word for what they're talking about. It's assaults. They are working in the area of Bakhmut which was a city of about 70,000 people.
And obviously it's not clear if these were opportunistic assaults or assaults that were planned beforehand. It's not clear the scale of these assaults. We were, for instance, yesterday in a different area where we saw what looked like the preparations for a major assault. Lots of troops around, lots of equipment, some of it modern recently provided, Western equipment, on the move. And that area definitely did look like something was going on. So we don't really have many details about what has happened in Bakhmut.
Now we did actually speak with some of the troops in the front in the area around Bakhmut, and they had told us that even while the chaos was unfolding in the Kremlin, that the Russian forces were still standing firm. So it's not altogether apparent whether there was any ripple effect among the Russian forces in the occupied parts of Ukraine or not as a result of what was going on in Moscow -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ben Wedeman in Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. Stay safe over there. Thank you very much.
I want to bring in former CNN Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty, retired lieutenant general Mark Hertling, and Russia expert Dimitri Alperovitch -- I should say.
Dimitri, let me start with you. How do you interpret this truly stunning turnaround that we've seen over the past couple of hours or so, Wagner forces backing down at least for now, and the Kremlin now saying Prigozhin will go to Belarus?
DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, RUSSIA AND GEOPOLITICS EXPERT: Well, we'll see if that actually happens. But, you know, to go back to Natasha's report that you just broadcast, Wolf, I think that's absolutely right that this has been in plans by Prigozhin for quite some time and likely started at least as early as June 10th when Shoigu issued that -- Defense Minister Shoigu issued that order to basically dismantle private military companies like Wagner and make them all sign up with the Russian Ministry of Defense, something that Prigozhin refused to do.
So I think that that was the time when he started to plan this operation to try to pressure the Russian military to cancel those plans and let him continue running Wagner. We will see if he gets all of what he wanted, which is certainly to keep his business operations, the Wagner Group, under his command, and to also try to replace Shoigu and Gerasimov.
He may not get everything but it's clear that he got some sort of deal that the president of Belarus, Lukashenko, helped to negotiate there.
BLITZER: Yes. It's very, very significant.
Jill, as you know, the Kremlin now says the criminal case against Prigozhin will be dropped. So what does all this reveal about Vladimir Putin's grasp on power right now? JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I still think that he is in a
very weakened position after this. I mean, after all, you know, a rebellion, almost getting to Moscow. There's no question. And he's also left with this dilemma of what do you do with Prigozhin. I mean, Prigozhin is a time bomb, and they know it. So this idea that you get him out of Russia, you send him to Belarus, it sounds a little strange, but I cannot imagine that Prigozhin would continue to be in Russia because every day that he's there he's a potential threat.
I mean, what Prigozhin wants is to get rid of the leadership of the military. Does he want Putin to go? Not necessarily. But he's been very critical in effect by saying what he said, that Putin was misled by his military. So it is a very confusing situation, but I think -- you know, I was asking myself why would they let Lukashenko do this deal. And I do think that if Putin were to negotiate directly with Prigozhin, it would put them on the same level.
Putin could never do that. So he gets Lukashenko who owes him a lot to do the deal. But the deal certainly leaves all these questions. Does Wagner disband? Where do they go? Do they go back to fight? Do they even exist? What happens to a lucrative business that Prigozhin has from Wagner? It's really quite extraordinary.
BLITZER: Yes. Lots of questions still unfolding right now.
General Hertling, how incredible is it that this power struggle between the Russian military on the one hand and Prigozhin and his Wagner troops spiraled this far?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, that is a great question. And what's fascinating, you know, in all organizational militaries you have unique personalities. Some with a lot of ego. As Jill just mentioned, Prigozhin is, I would say not just a time bomb, but he's a free-floating electron. He's all over the place. And what you're talking about with Prigozhin and Shoigu, neither one of them are professional military men. They have not grown up in the military.
They're play acting in this. They have not subjugated their forces to the security of Russia. They have forces that are pledged to them. It's phenomenal. I was thinking as I was watching the film, some of which you're showing right now, the soldiers that are walking around as part of the Wagner Group under Prigozhin's command, what the hell are they thinking right now? What is their mission? What's their mission set?
It's certainly not to serve Russia. It's to serve this personality. And the ego is off the chart. It's narcissistic. And truthfully, there are a lot of losers from what occurred over the last 24 hours. There will be continued losers, and I believe both Putin, Shoigu, and Prigozhin are all losers in this outcome.
BLITZER: Dmitri, you're an expert in this whole area. What do you think?
ALPEROVITCH: I absolutely agree. I mean, the fact that Prigozhin's Wagner Group, this armored column, was able to reach within about 150 miles off Moscow without the combined forces of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Interior forces, the intelligence services of the FSB, as well as the Rosgvardia, the National Guard, being able to stop them is truly remarkable and indicates how weak the whole system has become.
I mean, this is almost -- they've reached as far as Hitler did in 1941 right on the outskirts of Moscow. Truly remarkable, and even after Putin had declared that these traders have to be crushed, the Russian military still was unable to stop them.
BLITZER: You think he should -- Prigozhin, Dmitri, should fear for his life right now?
ALPEROVITCH: I think it's too early to say. This deal may very well hold. And in fact, the right way to think about the Russian system in general is for those of you who like the "Godfather" movie, it's as if the Barzini crime family negotiated a deal between Vito Corleone and the other rival family. These are essentially mafia figures, and sometimes in these mafia gangland shootouts, what's known in Russian as (INAUDIBLE), sometimes you have deaths of leaders, sometimes you have sit-downs that result in peace. It may not be durable peace, but sometimes they agree to move on.
BLITZER: Interesting indeed. Guys, thank you very, very much.
Just ahead, the White House reaction to this breaking news in Russia. President Biden backchanneling with key allies right now. So what sources are telling us right now about how U.S. officials are working to assess what's really happening in Moscow.
Stay with us. Lots going on. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're back with our breaking news. The apparent pullback of Wagner mercenary forces from their march toward the Russian capital of Moscow. The Biden administration obviously is closely monitoring this situation in Russia right now. The stakes for the U.S. and the NATO allies enormous.
Our White House correspondent, Priscilla Alvarez, is joining us now from the White House.
Priscilla, how are things unfolding behind the scenes where you are?
PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've been in touch with White House officials throughout the day, and the throughline has been that they're actively monitoring the situation as it unfolds. Now President Biden has arrived to Camp David, the presidential retreat, where he travelled with National Security adviser Jake Sullivan.
[16:20:06] That is an indicator that this is a fast-developing situation, and that he will be briefed as the hours go on. Now Sullivan had a trip to Europe planned and he canceled that trip as this situation unfolds. The Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley also had a trip planned that he postponed. So clearly a high priority for the White House as they continue to watch this situation.
Now President Biden earlier today also spoke with key leaders. He spoke to the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And in a readout of that call, the White House said that, quote, "The leaders discussed the situation in Russia. They also affirmed their unwavering support of Ukraine." This is a trio that has been closely aligned over the course of the war in Ukraine and all leaders that President Biden has kept in close touch with. So this is a critical call that happened earlier today.
Now, of course, as of early January, American officials have been watching this struggle, this power struggle through intelligence between the mercenary Wagner Group and the Russian government. And officials believe that tensions would mount, and that is what we are seeing play out on the ground now.
Now, a key part of the strategy for the White House has been staying in touch with allies and partners, not only President Biden but also his top officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke earlier today with G7 allies and E.U. counterparts again reaffirming the support for Ukraine. Secretary Austin has also been in close touch with partners across the region. So a concerted effort here to remain in close contact.
But officials are cautious about how much they're weighing in here as this continues to develop and as they try to wrap their arms around it. But we know from the White House that President Biden will be briefed throughout the date today. And so we'll see what more updates if any we get in the hours to come -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We shall see. Priscilla Alvarez, at the White House for us. Thanks.
Joining us now, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor.
Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. Let me get your reaction to this apparent deal for Prigozhin to go to Belarus right now and for the criminal case against him to potentially be dropped.
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Wolf, you put the right emphasis on apparent. I think there's a lot we don't know about this agreement. We're not even sure who struck this agreement. There's some stories coming out of Belarus that it was Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. But there are other indications that it may not have been. It may be somebody else. And we don't really know what the deal is, why he turned around, if indeed he's really committed to turning all the way around, going back to Rostov, going back to Ukraine.
There's a lot we don't know yet, Wolf, and I think we will watch this carefully and see if anybody else throws in with Prigozhin even at this late time.
BLITZER: How destabilizing, Ambassador, is all of this, this chaos that's unfolding to Vladimir Putin?
TAYLOR: It has to be a big problem for him. He had been focused on Ukraine, and his soldiers, his military, his leaders have been focused on Ukraine. And now he's focused on staying in power. He's focused on Prigozhin, who's a threat to him. He's worried about some of the other folks around him that he's not so sure about. So the focus has clearly shifted, and that's got to have an effect in Ukraine.
You mentioned earlier that the Ukrainians are mounting this counteroffensive. The Russian soldiers on the other side of that counteroffensive have to worry that their bosses, that their chain of command all the way up to the president, are not focused on them.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. What sort of opportunity does this Russian infighting that's unfolding present to Ukraine?
TAYLOR: I think this is a great opportunity. And your question earlier about whether this is opportunistic, these forward movements, these thrusts, this counteroffensive, these assaults, whether they are targets of opportunity or whether they're well planned or both.
As you know, Wolf, you've been reporting that Ukraine has been probing up and down the line, the 900-kilometer, 600-mile line looking for weaknesses. Now the last day or two we know that there have to be more weaknesses. There have to be gaps where they pulled some folks, some Russian soldiers out of the line. So this is an opportunity for the Ukrainians to identify those gaps and mount the force -- concentrate the force so they can go in and go across those Russian lines.
BLITZER: The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says Putin, in his words, is obviously very afraid. Those are Zelenskyy's words. How do you think the Ukrainian president views Putin's grasp on power tonight?
TAYLOR: You're right to make the contrast, Wolf.
We remember, you remember, you saw, you reported how Zelenskyy stayed in Kyiv when the Russian tanks, the Russian soldiers, were on the outskirts of Kyiv, outskirts of the capital where he was. And Zelenskyy stayed. There are strong indications, there are reports that President Putin is not in Moscow, that other people in his immediate circle not in Moscow. Zelenskyy stayed. Putin looks like he fled.
BLITZER: Yes. For good reason. How much do the threats Putin is now facing, Ambassador, actually stem from his invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago?
TAYLOR: So I think it's becoming clearer and clearer, Wolf, that President Putin made a bad mistake. One of the interesting things that came out over the last several days from Prigozhin was his assertion, was his description of the rationale for the invasion. Prigozhin says there were no Russians that were in danger in Ukraine, there was no -- there were no Nazis in Ukraine, there was no threat from Ukraine to Russia, that NATO was not going through Ukraine to threaten Russia.
That was all fake, according to Prigozhin. I think the Russian people, lot of Russians, certainly Prigozhin has pointed out that there was no rationale for the thousands, the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers that have been killed.
BLITZER: Good point. The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up, new CNN reporting on Yevgeny Prigozhin, just who is the man leading the Wagner mercenary group, and how much of a threat does he actually pose to Vladimir Putin?
You're watching our special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been a close ally of the Kremlin and Putin for years, and a key player in Russia's war on Ukraine. He's now the face of this attempted insurrection.
CNN's Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Berlin now.
Fred, you've reported on all of this for a long time. First of all, tell us more about Yevgeny Prigozhin and his long relationship with Putin.
FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You're absolutely right, Wolf, it is a very long relationship and one that was very important, obviously, for Yevgeny Prigozhin because it helped him rise, thanks to Vladimir Putin.
But also important for Vladimir Putin as well because Prigozhin for a very long time was an important asset for Vladimir Putin from a very -- not humble, but very small beginnings selling sausages and hot dogs in St Petersburg to then becoming a real force on battlefields around the world like, for instance, Libya and Syria.
Here's what we know about Yevgeny Prigozhin.
YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, WAGENER GROUP CHIEF: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
PLEITGEN (voice-over): He's long been a well-known mercenary leader around the world. Now Yevgeny Prigozhin is a wanted man in Russia, as well.
His often-merciless group of fighters is now pitted against the Russian military leadership, and Prigozhin is suddenly Moscow's public enemy number one. Vladimir Putin calling for Prigozhin's group to lay down arms.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): All those who prepared treachery, who prepared an armed mutiny, who chose blackmail and terrorist methods will face inevitable punishment and will answer both to the law and to our people.
PLEITGEN: He may be something of a nemesis to Vladimir Putin, but it was his decades'-long relationship with the Russian president that allowed Prigozhin to establish his own militia, the Wagner Group.
PRIGOZHIN: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
PLEITGEN: Wagner served as a private army doing controversial jobs that often not even Russia's military could do.
Prigozhin, a former prisoner himself and self-styled hard man from St. Petersburg, used Wagner to operate around the world.
CNN has tracked Wagner mercenaries to the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, Ukraine, and to Syria. Along the way, Prigozhin enriched himself.
Rights group have accused Wagner of horrific violence like this, Wagner fighters allegedly smashing the feet and hands of a Syrian prisoner with a sledgehammer in 2017. The man reportedly died after his ordeal. The images are incredibly disturbing like so many others attributed to his group.
For many years, Prigozhin denied the existence of Wagner, its work best done in secret.
A master of myth-making, it was Prigozhin and Wagner who set up the notorious Russian troll farm used to spread disinformation around the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
PLEITGEN: But when his fighters took to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine and began winning battles, Prigozhin seemed to want the spotlight.
PRIGOZHIN (through translation): The Bakhmut operation began on October 8th, 2022, in order to give the battered Russian army an opportunity to recover. Our guys stormed this city for 224 days. They were only Wagner private forces here.
PLEITGEN: His tactics included flinging poorly armed and poorly trained troops into the so-called "meat grinder" of war in Ukraine's east, suffering a shocking number of casualties in an attempt to overwhelm defenses.
Prigozhin rubbed his victories in the face of Russia's flailing defense department.
PRIGOZHIN: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) PLEITGEN: Venting his fury at the haphazardness and ill planning of Russia's illegal invasion. And chastising the Russian top brass, mocking Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
PRIGOZHIN (through translation): You think you are the masters of this life? You think you can dispose of their lives? You think because you have warehouses full of ammunition that you have that right?
PLEITGEN: Now the Kremlin's secret weapon may be its biggest threat.
PLEITGEN: As you can see there, Wolf, Yevgeny Prigozhin with that meteoric rise, really especially in the past couple of months with the battle of Bakhmut, becoming more well-known, becoming more in the open, as well, himself becoming more of a public figure.
It seemed as though he was at the height of his power. But now it also seems as though, Wolf, he might have gone one step too far -- Wolf?
BLITZER: We shall see.
Fred Pleitgen reporting for us. Thanks for that excellent report.
Joining us now to discuss all of these unprecedented developments is Garry Kasparov, the Russian pro-democracy activist and chess champion.
Garry, thank you so much for joining us.
The Kremlin, as you know, now says Prigozhin has a guarantee from Putin that he can leave the country for Belarus in this deal to stopgap Wagner's advance to Moscow. Would you trust a guarantee from Putin?
GARRY KASPAROV, CHAIRMAN, RENEW DEMOCRACY INITIATIVE & AUTHOR: Not for a second. And I agree with Ambassador Taylor, who said a few minutes ago on this program we know little. A scratch on the surface. So much that we'll learn later.
I don't believe that what we saw the last 48 hours was Oscar-winning performance. Some suggest it was kind of a deal and they just played a game.
But the game ended with Putin's worst humiliation. He ran for his life from Moscow when Prigozhin's army was hundreds of miles away. And many of top officials around for cover from Moscow.
And Putin called for Prigozhin to be arrested and Russian troops to stop him. And very few, if any, wanted to fight with Prigozhin.
I think it's a very troubling sign that most of the elite Russian troops joined Prigozhin in his march to Moscow. BLITZER: So what does this mean for Yevgeny Prigozhin, Garry? Is his
life now at risk? Is Putin and his forces, are they still going to try to kill him?
KASPAROV: Probably. Look, we're talking about mafia, and Prigozhin is a career criminal and now is a war criminal.
And whether there is some kind of a reveal that guarantees -- a deal that guarantees his life or moon or you end up somewhere in Africa, in the midst of his criminal empire that he built alongside of gold mines and diamond mines and uranium mines and all other riches of Africa that he now controls, we don't know.
But again, I don't think that he'll live long because Putin can't afford having to -- put in such an awkward situation. It's, again, humiliation all over the face.
Dictator can't afford to look weak. And Putin lost control. And he even talked about recognizing that his mafia state was on the verge of collapse.
BLITZER: Yes. Good point.
How seriously do you think, Garry, this unprecedented chaos right now undermines Putin's grip on power?
KASPAROV: Again, he lost prestige. Dictator relies on his ability, and he's always the last decisionmaker. Everything he says is the law. And it seemed that whatever he said in the last 56 hours didn't work out.
It's not him, it's Lukashenko who negotiated the deal. That's what they told us. We know that he even talked to the president, he was turned down.
Again, Putin's badly wounded. I don't think he'll last long because he definitely has no control of Russian security forces and army. If Prigozhin hadn't decided to turn away from Moscow, probably he would be now in control of Russian cabinet.
Garry Kasparov, thank you so much for joining us.
KASPAROV: Thank you for inviting me.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll have much more on the breaking news coming out of Russia right now. We'll talk to a key U.S. lawmaker on the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees about what he's learning about this unprecedented upheaval inside Putin's Russia right now. Stay with us.
[16:43:21] BLITZER: We're back with our breaking news, the apparent pullback of Wagner mercenary forces from their march to Moscow.
Joining us now to discuss, a member of both the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado.
Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.
First, have you had a chance to get a briefing on these truly historic and stunning events of the past 24 hours?
REP. JASON CROW (D-CO): I haven't received an official briefing yet, Wolf. I actually just arrived back in Colorado from my time in Washington.
But I have been tracking the Wagner Group and the work of Prigozhin for a very long time. He's been involved in Africa, in the Middle East, and of course the war in Ukraine for some time. He's been a key player in this conflict.
BLITZER: The Kremlin says there is a deal right now for the Wagner chief Prigozhin to back down and go to Belarus. What do you make of that, and does this chaos still threaten to topple potentially Putin's regime?
CROW: Well, if anybody thinks that either Putin or Prigozhin is going to walk away from this unscathed, they're fooling themselves.
The idea that Prigozhin is going to go to Belarus and retire in peace and the Wagner mercenaries are going to return to the battlefield and Putin's going to go back to situation normal, it's not going to happen.
Putin has been extremely weakened by this. Prigozhin has been extremely weakened by this. The Russian military has taken a huge morale blow due to this issue.
And actually one, they're our greatest tools, one of the greatest assets to this Wagner military force of over 30,000 is just off the battlefield. This is an opportunity for Ukraine to actually capitalize on this and expedite the offensive.
BLITZER: Do you expect Prigozhin to eventually come out of this alive?
CROW: I don't see how that happens. I really don't. Anybody who's watched Vladimir Putin over the years, that is just not his style. He's been humiliated.
The idea that something like this could happen even two years ago actually shows, Wolf, the extent to come the Ukrainian disaster -- has miscalculation to invade Ukraine has weakened him, destroyed his military, has destroyed his intelligence operation. The idea that he was taken by surprise of a massive force of 20,000 to
30,000 getting very close to Moscow, this never would have happened two years ago.
But there's another big development, Wolf, not just militarily. But we've learned something politically here, too.
It was shocking that the last 24 hours Prigozhin had a recording where he openly admitted that he ran the Russian election interference operation in 2016 to interfere in U.S. elections.
We've known for a while that he's run that, but to have the person running that operation admit that publicly, it's pretty shocking.
BLITZER: Yes. It was -- stunning moment indeed.
CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence officials believe Prigozhin had been planning a challenge to Russia's military leadership for some time, and intelligence had seen signs he was massing weapons and ammunition big time.
What challenges does the U.S. face now to manage the unexpected consequences that are unfolding? What do you think?
CROW: Well, I think we have a couple things we have to do. Number one, we have to make sure that weapons and equipment that are in the Russian arsenal remain safe and secure.
A big challenge because obviously we're being in Russia. Keeping eyes on the nuclear arsenal.
Number two, looking at where these mercenaries are going and the instability they could cause in other places. They're very involved in Africa and unstable, volatile regions, very involved in Syria.
Are those mercenaries moving out, are they rearranging their forces, is that going to cause more conflict in other regions? That's something we have to take a close look at.
The third is actually an opportunity for us. As we speak right now, the Biden administration dispatched high-level members of their administration to Europe to meet with countries who have kind of been on the fence.
That hadn't been willing to be critical of Russia, hadn't been willing to take sides in this conflict, to convince them to come our way and to push back against the Russian invasion.
Their job has just been made significantly easier because, frankly, they could tell folks to tune into your show and look at the disaster in Russia.
BLITZER: You're absolutely right.
Democratic Congressman Jason Crow, of Colorado, thank you very much for joining us. Coming up, you've been watching the breaking news here on CNN about
what's happening in Russia right now.
But what are the Russian people seeing? We're about to take a closer look at what state media in Russia is saying and what it really says about the severity of the attempted insurrection against Putin. That's coming up next.
BLITZER: The Russian government warning earlier today it may restrict access to the Internet in some areas of the country as Wagner mercenary forces marched towards the Russian capitol.
CNN senior global affairs analyst, Bianna Golodryga, is joining us live right now.
Bianna, how are the Russians trying to get information on this rapidly evolving situation in their country where Putin clearly holds a firm grip on state media?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it has been quite a stunning turn of events in the last 24 hours. The theater of the absurd, except the taking place in reality with the world's largest nuclear arsenal.
And you're right, Vladimir Putin has control over the state media and propaganda over the last few hours and 24 hours.
To be exact, most of Russians, I don't know how many can follow events as we have in the West. We do have video.
And it's interesting that Russian state media just in the past couple hours released video from the city Rostov where you did see some of the Wagner mercenaries receiving, and in this city, hailed there. They were cheering them on.
For Russian state media to be recording that and showing he's in images is quite stunning.
Also interesting, though we didn't see or hear from Vladimir Putin so many hours following those initial Telegram messages released from Prigozhin, and finally Vladimir Putin told Russian state media this man was treasonous, committing treasonous acts, and invoking 1917.
And to have this about-face now is stunning. I don't think we've seen this in recent history from Vladimir Putin.
I agree with your previous guest who says he does come out of this looking quite weakened.
For now, it's quite confusing for the majority of Russians who haven't been able to follow this. And obviously, some do have access to VPNs and many have access to Telegram. BLITZER: I know, Bianna, you are fluent in Russian and follow the
Russian media closely. Is this a reality check for Russians mostly insulated from fallout of Putin's war in Ukraine?
GOLODRYGA: I think it's yet another reality check of this war coming home. Obviously, we have seen in the course of this war there have been -- has been a mobilization last year.
There is speculation that perhaps following this counteroffensive from Ukraine, we could see another mobilization in the fall. This is something that Vladimir Putin had been reluctant to do.
But it's clear from any of the attacks we've seen within Russian territory over the past few months that this war has come closer to home.
And knowing -- this is now on top of this, you have Wagner mercenaries who, just a few hours ago, were outside of Moscow before this rapid deal was arranged. It is stunning for the Russian public and for the Western public watching this all play out.
One thing to note, tomorrow is a bank holiday in Moscow. Clearly, the Kremlin would like to say that things are back to status quo. I think it's safe to say that is not the case right now.
BLITZER: Yes, Bianna Golodryga, as usual, thank you very, very much.
We'll have more breaking news coverage straight ahead, including the latest reporting from our reporters covering all of the news unfolding in Russia, as well as a live report from the frontlines in Ukraine.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.