What does the failed mutiny mean to U.S. interests in the war in Ukraine?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Biden says he made a video call to allies over the weekend to deliver a message about the mutiny.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.
INSKEEP: So what does it mean for the conflict where the United States is involved, the war in Ukraine and the larger competition with Russia? Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan is a former CIA intelligence officer, now on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, and she joins us from Michigan. Good morning.
ELISSA SLOTKIN: Good morning.
INSKEEP: This mutiny obviously seems bad for Putin, but is it helpful to U.S. interests?
SLOTKIN: Well, look. I mean, I think this whole episode - and you've been talking about the swirl of what's still happening - the whole episode, to me, is the greatest signal we have of Putin's folly in trying to invade the entirety of Ukraine. I mean, a year and a half after he goes in, you have Russians fighting Russians on Russian soil. And, you know, as someone who worked alongside the military, when you have a good operational plan, good morale, a clear chain of command and you're involved in a military conflict, then you don't start fighting each other. You don't bring in a mercenary force to help you. You don't bring in a country like Iran to help train your troops. To me, it's just a really visible signal that what they're trying to do in Ukraine is faltering. And I think that's important, given where the U.S. is on supporting the Ukrainians.
INSKEEP: Their frustrations in Ukraine are pretty obvious. But let me try out an alternate reading of this, which I guess would say that Vladimir Putin is still in charge in Russia. He wanted, it seems, to take over the Wagner Group soldiers and make them sign contracts for the Russian military. He's now got Prigozhin out of the way, and he has the Wagner Group soldiers. Is it possible that Putin just endures this and goes on?
SLOTKIN: Well, sure. I don't think anyone's saying that Putin's about to fall. But I think when you have a reputation as a strongman and that's your whole shtick, and then something like this happens - very visible, that you can't - you know, despite your attempts, you can't spin out of, you know, existence - I think it is a real chink in the armor, especially in a country where it's really taboo to talk about how badly, you know, the war is going. So I think it's an important data point. I don't think Putin's about to be out of power, but I think it's a major chink in the armor that calls into question his overall control of the war effort.
INSKEEP: Very interesting quote from a Russian newspaper editor with links to the Kremlin in The New York Times this week saying that this episode had cracked the elites' faith that Putin could protect their wealth and their power. Do you think that Putin is diminished at home by this?
SLOTKIN: I don't think there's any other way, other than to see it as a diminishment of him. I think it's just - again, he has a reputation of being a tough guy. And, you know, that is sort of his thing. And for me, this is - you know, it's been 30-plus years since we've had Russians fighting Russians on Russian soil. So, you know, his desire to go down in the annals of history as one of the great leaders of Russia - this does not help his case. And if you're an elite who's been protected, then you should be thinking about whether, you know, his power is still as strong as it was before.
INSKEEP: I guess Russia has yet to show any way that they could win the war in Ukraine. But let me ask the opposite question. As Ukraine tries to ramp up this offensive, do you believe Ukraine can win? And if so, what is winning?
SLOTKIN: Yeah, I think this summer offensive that the Ukrainians are on is really, really important. And what we're hoping for - and this opportunity with what's going on in the confusion in Russia, I think, helps this case - is we want to change the status quo in Ukraine by the end of the summer. We want them to make important gains. We want them to take back territory, change the status quo so that the Ukrainians feel in a position of power and strength, and they can come to the negotiating table. I don't think anyone ever believed that the Ukrainians would do as well as they've done. It's a credit to them. But the ability to completely rid Russia of every - from every inch of their soil is - might be a bridge too far. But we want them to have the strength to get to a negotiating table. And I think that that's an open opportunity this summer.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you about the debate in Congress over supporting Ukraine. As you know, it's been a very bipartisan matter up to now, but some Republicans have been openly supportive of Russia or have been skeptical of U.S. aid to Ukraine, have been skeptical, certainly, of the Biden administration. And Speaker McCarthy has spoken in broad terms of not wanting to be open-ended, necessarily, about support for Ukraine. Do you believe that there is sufficiently strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives to pass whatever Ukraine may need in the months and years ahead?
SLOTKIN: Well, I think that there's definitely a core group of people who, you know, have sort of a focus on national security, who understand the symbol that Ukraine is and the importance of showing that we stand up when a democracy is invaded. That's an important message to send to Ukraine, to others in the area but also to countries like China. So I think that there is a core group. But I will be very honest. I mean, I'm here in Michigan. I'll go to parades, and there are people who want us to stop sending aid to Ukraine. I mean, it's definitely up to leaders to make the case and that long play, rather than to just sort of be a populist and take what people are saying and saying, we got to get out. But that's going to be a struggle in the next few months. We got to keep that coalition of bipartisan members together.
INSKEEP: Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, thanks so much.
SLOTKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.