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Threat To Putin Amid Dispute With Wagner Chief; Blinken Calls Ukrainian And Turkish FMs To Discuss Situation In Russia; White House Closely Monitoring Power Struggle In Russia; Wagner Chief Says His Mercenaries "Are Turning Around"; Putin Accuses Wagner Mercenaries Of "Uprising," Calls Wagner Chief "Traitor"; Interview With Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI); Who Is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 24, 2023 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now -- the Russian Wagner group's march towards Moscow is over. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary group says he's turning his forces around from a march towards the Russian capital potentially ending an apparent military coup against Putin. But it remains unclear whether the most significant challenge from Vladimir Putin during his more than two decades hold on power is truly over.

The Kremlin says that as part of a deal with Prigozhin, Wagner fighters will return to base and not, repeat, not face legal action for taking part in the march. The Wagner chief is also said to be heading to neighboring Belarus.

U.S. Intelligence officials tell CNN they believe Prigozhin had been planning a major challenge to Russia's military leadership for quite some time but were surprised by the rapid escalation of the situation.

The White House says it's closely monitoring events in Russia and that President Biden is being continually updated by his national security team.

We want to welcome 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is "CNN Breaking News".

BLITZER: And let's go straight to our CNN chief international security correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He's following all the breaking news for us.

Nick the are truly fast-moving developments unfolding. Update our viewers on the very latest.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I'll tell you Wolf, it doesn't really at the end of it make a lot of sense.

What we know now is that Yevgeny Prigozhin has agreed to turn around his columns on the way to Moscow and they've gone back to field camps. We've seen video of some of those Wagner fighters leaving the Rostov- on-Don city, that southern military stronghold that they took over last night and seemed to walk into they say without even firing a shot. They're leaving.

He indeed himself was pictured in an SUV wearing a baseball cap in that city. It seems driving out and being cheered by locals. So that answer's one question the Kremlin weren't able to answer themselves. Where is Yevgeny Prigozhin? He seems to be leaving Rostov.

But the Kremlin also offered a very elaborate series solutions to how the day has finally come to an end. In their statements they think Yevgeny Prigozhin is now bound for Belarus.

Interestingly, Belarus's president stepped forward and Russian state media backed that up to suggest that he played a role as kind of the intermediary here getting Yevgeny Prigozhin to agree to stand down at the behest of Vladimir Putin.

We also know the Wagner fighters who were involved in this particular march on Moscow, as it's being termed by some, they will not face prosecution. The Kremlin saying that their bravery on the front line has been recognized, and those who were not involved in the march could, in fact, join the Russian ministry of defense.

So an utterly bizarre sudden 180 towards the end of today where Yevgeny Prigozhin by his own suggestion was 125 miles outside the outskirts of the capital city unimpeded, frankly, all that way (INAUDIBLE) and minor clashes perhaps with helicopters on that main highway, suddenly decides to change his mind and then, according to the Kremlin is now part of a deal where he agrees to go into exile in Belarus and be done with it all without facing prosecution.

It's an utterly baffling turn of events here. Vladimir Putin began the day angrily denouncing an armed insurrection as blackmail, as terrorist methods and now appears to have struck a deal with Prigozhin who will essentially, it seems, if this is really the case, that the Kremlin's version of events, will go into effect, will now be safe in Belarus.

It will have an impact on Russian positions on the front lines because Wagner have been key fighters there certainly.

But I've got to tell you, Wolf, it feels like we're missing some key facts here. It feels like we're missing something in the negotiations with Prigozhin or something in his calculations. Did this just a long- planned effort it seems go too frighteningly well, that found himself too close to Moscow and decided to pull back? Has something else gone on that we're not aware of?

It doesn't really make sense at this particular stage. What it does do though is embarrass the Kremlin and certainly showed that Vladimir Putin is not the all-powerful man in Russia that he appeared to be more of 24 hours ago, Wolf.


BLITZER: It's also as you say, utterly bizarre, and clearly Putin is vulnerable right now.

Nick Paton Walsh reporting for us. Stay with us.

U.S. intelligence has been closely monitoring the situation.

I want to go to our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's joining us live right now. You have some new reporting, I understand Jim, about what U.S. intelligence actually knew leading up to these truly extraordinary and historic events.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. U.S. Western intelligence partners have been watching Russia of course, very closely for some time. But in reasons days they had detected preparations. They believed that Prigozhin was making preparations and planning for a major challenge to Russian military leadership in recent days and weeks.

They were surprised by the speed of his operation in the last 24 hours, but were not surprised that this challenge had taken place. They'd seen a number of preparations in the leadup to this. The massing of weapons, contacts with regular Russian army units, and then, of course, his very public statements critical of Russian military leadership and right up to Vladimir Putin in recent days and weeks as well.

And they saw all of those signals, and saw those as preparations for some serious challenge to Russian military leadership which is what we seem to have seen play out over these tumultuous last 24 hours.

I will say that during that time frame another thing they were watching closely as Prigozhin marched his forces first to Rostov-on- Don and then further at least towards Moscow was how much or how many Russian regular army units would join him in that.

Early on, as we were discussing earlier in the day, they noticed that many Russian units did not seem to be challenging Prigozhin's advance, though not perhaps joining him but at least not challenging him. Letting him pass by.

What isn't clear is that there was a critical mass of other forces joining him in this challenge here. And that could have been an influential factor in what we've seen just in these last couple of hours there. A reversal by Prigozhin and his forces, and now seeing them leave, head back to their camps, to their bases.

BLITZER: Very important, indeed. All right. Jim Sciutto reporting for us. Thank you.

CNN's Ben Wedeman also is tracking what's going on. He's getting reaction from inside Ukraine. He's live in Zaporizhzhia, in the war zone in Ukraine. He's joining us right now. So Ben, what are you learning? What's the situation there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I must say, Wolf, it has been long, strange day. This morning when everyone here in Ukraine learned that at 7:30 a.m. Local time that Prigozhin and his men appeared to have seized some critical military facilities in southern Russia in Rostov-on-Don it seemed that perhaps Russia was on the brink of something huge.

Ukrainian officials started talking about perhaps this is the beginning of the collapse of the Russian state. Perhaps the beginning of a civil war. Even President Zelenskyy in his nightly address to the nation said -- suggested that perhaps Vladimir Putin was on the run.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman reporting from Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. Ben, thank you very much. Stay safe over there, as I say to you every day.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is back with us. I also want to bring in retired General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and retired Colonel Cedric Leighton, both CNN military analysts.

General Clark, Moscow was bracing for a potential Wagner assault. There's no doubt about that. Yet, now the Kremlin says they've struck a deal with Prigozhin. What's your reaction to these late-breaking developments?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I agree with what Nick said that we don't have all the facts. There are missing facts here.

Here's a couple of things that don't add up. Number one is do we really know that there was a rocket strike on Prigozhin's troops? We don't really know that. We've seen some video of it but we don't have any evidence of that.

We do know that tactical nuclear weapons have been supposedly moved into Belarus. Is it possible that this is all a sort of masquerade (ph) of distraction to be able to redeploy the Wagner group troops into Belarus? We don't know that. We don't really understand the essence of the deal.

So there's a lot of facts here that don't make sense. But it doesn't seem that Prigozhin is the kind of person who would have lost something like this, prepared for it, and then suddenly just decide, well, I don't seem to have the troops aboard. I think I'll just cut a deal and go into exile in Belarus.

This is a man who controls Syria. He's got troops all over Africa. He's bringing in gold. He's worth a lot of money. There's a lot -- there's a lot more here that we're not seeing yet.


BLITZER: I suspect you're absolutely right.

Colonel Leighton, we do have some new video of Prigozhin supposedly leaving Rostov-on-Don military headquarters with crowds cheering him. Does Putin still see Prigozhin as a threat, as long as Prigozhin is

still alive?

COLONEL CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, that I think is one possibility, Wolf. That he is still a threat to this -- you know, I agree with General Clark. This is one of the most bizarre situations that we've dealt with in a long time.

I know the other possibility is that this is a huge masquerade that's been staged for everybody's benefit to get them to believe that something is going on when it really isn't. And that's I think one of the possibilities. And the possibility as General Clark of him going to Belarus is something that has to be considered. The possibility that they might be redeploying within Ukraine to some other area that is perhaps weaker now because of some other things. That's also possible.

So there are a lot of things that could still happen. He could still be considered a threat by Putin because the language was very strong this morning in Putin's speech, but there's something that is not quite adding up here.

BLITZER: You're right. Nick, U.S. intelligence, we understand, believe Prigozhin had been planning a move against the Russian military leadership for some time. So how do you square that with what we've seen unfold over these past 24 hours?

WALSH: Yes, it doesn't square, does it? Because you would imagine he might follow it through if indeed there has been this level of preparation. And I have to say, you know, the forces that moved were substantial. You don't just pull together something like that from ragtag individuals on the front lines and a few hours later roll into Rostov.

So does that possibly speak to whether or not this air strike at the camp on Friday, which Yevgeny Prigozhin said was essentially the key inspiration or the driving force behind the decision to move towards Rostov, whether that, indeed, did change a plan or in fact just providing justification for something they'd long-planned before.

I hate to disagree with my two esteemed friends here but I don't think we're looking at an arch design or strategy over the past couple days here, masterminded by somebody somewhere to deceive us.

This is chaos, frankly. And I don't think we really understand quite why Yevgeny Prigozhin has changed his mind. But Vladimir Putin I don't think would want to entertain some sort of staggering display of weakness like we've seen over the past two days or so.

This makes him look exceptionally frail. And the fact he had to turn, it seems, to the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a man frankly who he considers to be a subordinate, who he can order around as a lesser ally, to come in and engineer this sort of compromise that gets Prigozhin to stand down, that in itself, is humiliating.

So I think a lot of the time we like to feel that there's some sort of eminence grise behind the chaos in Russia or that the Russian state is somehow in control of all the strings that control a marionette on its stage. I think what we've seen here is a real sign of splits in the elite that we've known around for a while. It spilled into the open.

Quite why we didn't see the Wagner group move all the way to the capital, we may never know the answer to that. They may simply not have fancied the idea of driving into a massive metropolis full of police and people who may not want them to be there without adequate support.

But there may also be something else, as we said earlier on, that's not in our knowledge at the moment and we may learn down the line.

I don't think this crisis is finished and certainly what is not finished is the perception that Putin's grip on power in Russia, I think it's fair to say, is not what it was 48 hours ago, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, let me quickly get General Clark's reaction to that. What do you think, General?

CLARK: Well, I think it's true. There's no doubt this makes Putin look weak. And I think it's also true that we don't know what the full answers are. But it's -- it's also a fact that if you look, for example, at 1999 and how Putin took charge, blew up his own apartment buildings to start the war in Chechnya, made the Russian state look weak and then started a war.

He's an intelligence guy. So you know, you can't always take it at face value. You have to, I agree it looks chaotic, to us it looks like he's weak, but I think we also have to look as deeply as we can at what his motives might be and might actually -- what actually the outcome of this might be.

So it's a mystery at this point. Got to keep all ideas on the table.

BLITZER: So what do you think, Colonel Leighton?

LEIGHTON: I think, Wolf, that the basic idea that Putin is the mastermind I think is proven wrong in many cases here.


LEIGHTON: The other part of this, though, is that when we look at the totality of all of this, I think what we're seeing is in the frame of the Russian state and an effort by two very delusional men to exercise as much power as they possibly can. And by those I mean, of course, Putin and Prigozhin.

BLITZER: Good point.

Guys, thank you very, very much for that excellent analysis.

Just ahead, we'll have the latest on the diplomatic front and what we're learning about American outreach efforts to allies around the world right now. Sources tell CNN U.S. intelligence was aware this was in the works. The former director of U.S. National Intelligence is standing by to

join us live.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're back with more of breaking news.

The apparent pullback of Wagner mercenary forces from their march to the Russian capital. The United States and Western allies are closely following these very fast-moving developments in Russia right now.


BLITZER: CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood is following all of this for us from the State Department. Kylie, first of all, what are you learning?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well listen, the Secretary of State has been working the phones really all day, Wolf. And that should be no surprise.

Earlier today speaking with his counterparts from the G7, also the foreign affairs, the top foreign affairs official for the E.U. and then later today speaking with the foreign minister from Ukraine, also the foreign minister from Turkey.

In all of these conversations, the readout from the State Department has been clear. That the U.S. support for Ukraine has not changed. But in terms of an actual response or reaction from the White House or from the State Department to this evolving crisis over the last 24 hours, we really haven't seen a whole lot in terms of responding to every twist and turn that we have been reporting on here.

And that's a calculated decision, Wolf. When you talk to U.S. officials, Western officials what they say is that they don't want to weigh in because they don't want President Putin to perceive anything that they could say as potentially escalating this ongoing crisis or trying to influence this ongoing crisis.

But behind the scenes, intelligence officials from the United States have actually been tracking what has been Wagner group's build up of its military capabilities, its ammunition, its weapons along the border with Ukraine for some time.

And one of the things that they have been, you know, looking at is the possibility that he would actually challenge the Russian ministry of defense.

Of course, that is what we have seen evolving here. And it's interesting. One of the things that a U.S. official told our colleague is they think that when Prigozhin was talking about there being a dearth of ammunition, they believe that that was deliberate deception on his part, because he was actually building up ammunition for this potential aggression which has played out over the course of the last 24 hours.

Now, of course, what we're watching for now is what the White House, what the State Department, is saying. Now that there appears to be this de-escalation, this agreement that has been brokered by the president of Belarus. We have yet to get a response.

But of course, U.S. officials are watching this incredibly closely. President Biden earlier today traveling from the White House to Camp David. He was accompanied by his national security advisor who was supposed to be traveling in Europe this weekend but of course is with the president who is being routinely updated on this crisis, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of officials have changed their plans given this crisis that's unfolding.

Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thank you for that report.

Joining us now, the former director of U.S. National Intelligence, retired General James Clapper. He's also a CNN national security analyst. General, thank you so much for joining us.

As you know, U.S. intelligence believes Prigozhin was planning a move against the Russian military leadership for some time. So how surprising is it that he's apparently backing down now?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well Wolf, I think this is one case where some humility is merited. We obviously don't fully understand what's going on here. This is really a bizarre turn of events.

What I wonder about is what Putin did to leverage Prigozhin. Did they get to his family or some significant relationship to cause him to call this off, this rather elaborate military move, and agree to go to Belarus, of all places, which is hardly a safe haven for the likes of Prigozhin.

Putin is not going to stand still, I don't believe, for letting him out footloose and fancy free. So If Prigozhin goes to Belarus, he shouldn't go above the first floor of any building.


CLAPPER: So we just need -- we need to know more about this to really understand what's going on.

BLITZER: Belarus and it's leadership very close allies of Putin, in fact. The Kremlin says Prigozhin will go to Belarus. Can Putin afford to have Prigozhin alive -- Prigozhin alive right now after this unprecedented threat to Putin's rule in Russia?

CLAPPER: Absolutely not. The result of this is even if it was a masquerade of some sort, the net result is a diminishing of Putin's status, his stature, his prestige both within his own country and internationally. So I can't conceive of Putin tolerating Prigozhin out there potentially able to do more mischief. BLITZER: Yes. I totally agree with you. What are the implications,

General, of Putin being so embarrassed on a global scale like this right now, with all of his weaknesses very much on display?


CLAPPER: Well, one thing that concerns me is -- is whether this would cause him to be more reckless. I still -- you still wonder about just how much information he's actually getting about what's really going on.

And so, you know, this is a, it's a positive development certainly from the standpoint of the Ukrainians. Perhaps they can take advantage of this distraction and the revelation exposure of even more fissures within the Russian military.

But it could mean for him, I think, it could cause him to be more reckless in an effort to try to continue to be influential on the world stage.

BLITZER: Putin, as you well know, General has been in power for more than two decades -- 23 years specifically. What are the intelligence -- what are intelligence officials in Washington watching for right now? Could this chaos trigger unexpected changes inside Russia? What do you think?

CLAPPER: Well they could, and I think at a time like this, not to be an alarmist, but the thing the intelligence community will watch carefully is any change whatsoever, however subtle, in the nuclear posture of Russia.

Not suggesting that that's indicated here, but from an intelligence perspective that's what you want to watch first. And then, of course, to the extent that you can, and this is tough for Western intelligence, because of how opaque Russia is, it's determining if others may take advantage of this moment of weakness for Putin and push him out.

So if, in fact, Prigozhin meant, this is a coup, perhaps others may take advantage of this moment of vulnerability. I don't know, and obviously it bears watching and I am quite sure my former colleagues in the intelligence community are doing just that.

BLITZER: Yes. I've been told they are very worried, they're watching very closely Russia's smaller tactical nuclear weapons right now. They want to see what's going on. It's a source of grave concern potentially.

The former director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Thanks, as usual, for joining us.

Up next, we're going inside the Kremlin with experts on Russian President Vladimir Putin. How will he respond to what's happening and who is he talking to? Who does he trust?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. [17:27:40]



BLITZER: The breaking news we're following right now. Head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says he's turning his forces around from a march towards the Russian capital of Moscow.

What does that really mean for the most significant challenge to Vladimir Putin during his 23 years in power?

Let's discuss what's going on with the former CNN Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty, along with the former CIA chief of Russian operations, Steve Hall.

Jill, let me start with you.

The Kremlin says Prigozhin has a guarantee from Putin that he can go to Belarus, neighboring Belarus, which is a close ally of Putin's. What do you expect Putin's next moves will be?

JILL DOUGHERTY, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY & FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Well, that's the question, isn't it? But I think Putin -- you know, what did Prigozhin want? Prigozhin has said he wants to get rid of the leadership of the military, people like the Defense Minister Shoigu, and General Gerasimov. We don't know whether he got that behind the scenes.

So I think we ought to be watching where Shoigu is. Is he still around? Is he still the defense minister? That would be one.

Then also, by sticking Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarus, that doesn't really solve the problem, because Prigozhin, you know, is powerful in the sense that he makes a lot of money solving problems for Putin around the world. Into blood diamonds in Africa. Providing security in conflict zones, et cetera.

So I don't think it's as easy to say good-bye go to Belarus and never meet again. He is a threat no matter where he goes.

The question that should be asked, I think, and won't be answered, of course, for a while, but does Prigozhin get paid off in some way? Does he get to keep the companies that he's got?

Because not only, you know, war with Wagner, it's also these very lucrative things around the world.

And then it looks like Wagner is a military group that may begin to disintegrate if they become part of the regular military. But I think Putin is very weakened now by this and has major decisions with these people that up to now he's been playing off against each other.

BLITZER: And, Steve, as you know, Putin has been seen as increasingly paranoid in recent years. How do the events of the last 24 hours, do you believe, how do those events impact his mind-set now?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, there's so many questions. Jill's absolutely right. There's certainly more questions than we have answers to right now.

I think we'll get to the bottom of some of these but it will take months if not years.

Interesting. I was thinking, remember, in Covid, Wolf, saying, wow, look, a huge white table between he and his military advisors. The rumors of him having sophisticated filtration systems.

The whole idea of Putin up until now has been very recluse almost, and people were opening questioning how much information, how much intelligence is he getting about what's really going on, on the battlefield?


And although there's a lot of questions, there are some things we know for sure. One, I think, is he had no idea that something like this could actually happen. Because, had he known, he never would have permitted it.

A big question still out there is , why did it stop? Why did Prigozhin decide to turn around?

And the other thing we know now is that Vladimir Putin personally and as the leader of Russia and Russia, writ large, is in a much weaker position than they were 36 hours ago.


HALL: This, of course, is a benefit to the Ukrainians.

But I think Putin has to be diminished. There's no way that he can be looked at again as this monolithic leader who controls everything inside of Russia. That's not the case anymore and it's obvious to everybody in the world.

BLITZER: He certainly has been weakened big time.

Jill, as this was all unfolding, Putin described Prigozhin's actions as a betrayal, a betrayal. Who, if anyone, does Putin trust right now?

DOUGHERTY: Oh, I think very few people. In fact, since last year, he's really just had a very small coterie of people he's dealt with, the head of his security council, people like that.

But I think another threat that Prigozhin has for Putin is that Prigozhin is really kind of a populist.

Because in this the tabloids recently, he's been saying the reason he hates the conventional military is because they're all elitists. They're not patriots. He is the patriot. That these guys are ripping off the military. They are deceiving Putin, et cetera. So he's really, you know, kind of playing a populist card, too. And in

Russia, although who knows how far this will go, but I do think there is anger about the elites. And that could play, again, against Putin even more than kind of a longer term.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, Steve Hall, guys, thank you very much for your analysis.

Just ahead, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former CIA analyst is here with her assessment of what's happening right now in Russia. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin is standing by to join us live.



BLITZER: We're back with our breaking news. The chief of the Wagner mercenary group pulling pack forces from their march to the Russian capital.

Joining us now, Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, who sits on the Armed Services Committee and his vice chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. She's also a former CIA analyst.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

What's your reaction to this truly stunning turn of events, this apparent deal struck for Wagner forces to stop their advance on Moscow?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): Yes. A lot of history going on in the last 48 hours. It was stunning to see violence on Russian soil. And then it's stunning to see how they've come to this, at least, temporary deal.

For me, it just reinforces Putin's weakness. This deal just -- it just gives kind of -- gives away the farm, in a way. And it will be interesting to see what Putin does in the next couple of weeks.

But I -- I would -- if you would have told me a year ago that we'd have this kind of violence and then in the face of that violence Putin would caught deal, have a head of another country cut a deal on his behalf like this, that doesn't call for big detainment or massive arrests, I compare it to what happened in 2016 when we had an attempted coup in Turkey. Right?

Very different situation, but, man, at end of it, whether you like him or not, Erdogan came out stronger. He made his point, pushed back. He awakened the Turkish people to push back in the middle of the coup. He was on-screen talking to people on cell phone videos.

And you just compare that to how this has gone for Putin, and I think it really popped a balloon on his invincibility with the Russian people, which is very interesting. BLITZER: How much damage, Congresswoman, has this done to Putin's grip

on power?

SLOTKIN: Well, I think there's a big difference between, you know, armed conflict going on 200 kilometers away, and Putin actually being at risk of losing power.

I think we have to watch what he does the next couple of days. I would not be shocked if he fired his minister of defense, his chief of defense staff. Two of the three people in Russia who really control the national security issues. So we'll see if he does sort of a purge.

But my feeling is -- you know, look, analysis is always hard, but I don't see this as, like, the tipping point for Putin going down. I just think it's a very important indicator that the emperor is not wearing any clothes and that's now been exposed.

BLITZER: I know you say, Congresswoman, that these latest developments directly stem from Russia's failures in Ukraine. Can you elaborate on that and what this means potentially for Putin's war against Ukraine?

SLOTKIN: I think there is some important operational issues. And then a big important strategic value here in what's going on.

Operationally, we know. We've known from the beginning of this ridiculous endeavor by Putin that the Russian military is not all that it's cracked up to be, logistics, battlefield, you know, operations, air power.

I mean, a lot of the things that many of us assumed this former superpower really had the ability to do, they showed quickly they didn't. They had to import a mercenary force to come fight in some of the most important frontline areas.


They're getting training and weapons from the Iranians. I mean, as opposed to the other way around, what you would have seen 20 or 30 years ago.

So you can see that they're struggling. And because of that, that affects morale. That affects the Russian psyche when you're losing. Right? No one likes to lose.

I think this scene that was exposed between the Wagner Group and Putin really grew out of that frustration on the battlefield. So that, to me, is directly connected to sort of the failures of the Russians.

So the other thing I think that's really here is Putin decided to invade the entire country of Ukraine, crazy thing to do, because he thought he could outwait us.

That American resolve, NATO resolve, our allies, we'd just get tired and bored, and he could wait us out, that we wouldn't want to fight a war, we wouldn't want to be engaged, we wouldn't stay united, and if he waited long enough, he could just take the country. And I think a year and a half later, he's the one who is wobbling.

He's the one who is exposed. He's the one who has got real problems amongst his ranks because we've managed to keep a global coalition together to push back on him.

So I think that it's really an important moment. And I hope the Ukrainians will be able to take advantage of it on the battlefield.

BLITZER: Putin has dramatically been weakened.

Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, of Michigan, thanks so much for joining us.

SLOTKIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And coming up, just who is the man leading this mercenary group? We'll have a closer look at Yevgeny Prigozhin, who the Kremlin described as leading a, quote, "armed rebellion."



BLITZER: He was once one of Vladimir Putin's closest allies, earning the name Putin's chef for his close work with the Russian president. But now the Kremlin is calling him a traitor after an apparent failed military insurrection.

Who is the head of this Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin?

CNN's Brian Todd is digging into this for us.



BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The man recently videotaped screaming at Vladimir Putin's top military officials for betraying his mercenaries on the battlefield is someone used to the tactic of strong arming, threatening, ruthlessly taking what he wants.

The Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, may have won over Vladimir Putin for displaying those traits, rather than the fact that they both hail from the same hometown, St. Petersburg.

HALL: I think that he has some traits that Putin likes but also sees in himself.

TODD: Prigozhin's rise is a classic Russian tale of brute force ambition. He served time in prison in the final stages of the Soviet Union for petty crimes.

When he got out, he started a hotdog stand. Parlayed that into a series of successful restaurants that Putin sometimes brought other world leaders to.

Prigozhin scored lucrative government catering contracts, earning him the nickname Putin's chef.

HALL: Being the guy who runs the Kremlin food service might to you and me sound like not a particularly important thing. But to people who are afraid of being poisoned, that's a position of trust for Prigozhin.

TODD: Prigozhin used Putin's trust and resources to make another bold and extraordinary move around 2014, founding Wagner as a paramilitary group, then operating mostly in the shadows.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED: In order to run coups and mercenary activities out of the republic. He was involved in Syria. When Russia doesn't want to use its own troops, when Russia wants to outsource to contractors, they rely on Wagner.

TODD: CNN has tracked Wagner mercenaries operating in Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, Mali and Syria, as well as Ukraine.

HALL: Prigozhin has, by some counts, 25,000 men, many of whom are very battle hardened.

TODD: Battle hardened and brutal. Human rights groups say Wagner, which has recruited murders and drug dealers from Russian prisons to fight, has committed a series of human rights abuses.

Including allegedly torturing a Syrian prisoner with a sledgehammer and executing a Wagner fighter who had defected in the same way.

HALL: You know, the videos of Prigozhin and his people using sledgehammers to maim and kill people. So he understands the value, the propaganda value of coming across as a brutal, almost uncivilized kind of person.

Because that's another kind of power that I think the Russian population certainly at least fears, and in some cases, respects.

TODD (on camera): One analyst says, no matter how this high-stakes drama turns out in the end, at the very least, Yevgeny Prigozhin has damaged Vladimir Putin by openly telling the Russian people that the Ukraine war was started under fraudulent circumstances -- Wolf?


BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Brian, thank you.


And we'll have more news just ahead.


BLITZER: Finally tonight, a personal note tied to the events we're watching today. In August 1991, CNN sent me to Moscow to report on the failed KGB coup against the then-leaders Gorbachev and Yeltsin. I was CNN's correspondent. Shortly after arriving in Moscow, I interviewed the new Soviet defense

minister, Yevgeny Shaposhnikov. He had been the commander of the Soviet Air Force but had refused orders from the KGB to bomb demonstrators loyal to Yeltsin on the streets of Moscow during the coup.

He wanted to thank CNN for covering the anti-coup demonstrations in Moscow. He said the world saw those protests thanks to CNN and that's why he refused those KGB orders.

He told me that, if the coup had succeeded, he would have been sent to Siberia or simply executed.


A few months later, in December 1991, I was back in Moscow to report on the collapse of the Soviet Union, giving independence to its former republics including, of course, Ukraine.

If someone had suggested then that Russia, years later, would attack Ukraine, I would have never believed it. And now, like everyone, I'm so anxious to see how this current historic moment in Russia unfolds.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll be back tomorrow for more special coverage.

In the meantime, Jim Acosta picks up CNN's special coverage right now.