The head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency said on Wednesday that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “cut a deal” with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, during Mr. Prigozhin’s failed coup last month.
The comments of Richard Moore, the head of MI6, in a rare speech in Prague at an event hosted by Politicooffers a Western intelligence official’s insight into Mr. Prigozhin’s stunning but short-lived rebellion last month.
The Wagner leader staged a rebellion against Russia’s military last month, which saw his mercenary forces march on the capital before abruptly halting. More than two weeks later, the Kremlin disclosed that Mr. Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders met with Mr. Putin for three hours in the days after the uprising ended.
“I think he probably feels a bit of pressure,” Mr Moore said of Mr Putin, speaking at the British ambassador’s residence in the Czech capital. “Prygozhin was his creature, completely created by Putin, and yet he turned against him. He really did not fight Prigozhin; he made a deal to save his skin using the good offices of the leader of Belarus.”
Mr. Moore also reflected on the dizzying nature of the Wagner forces’ sudden march toward Moscow, the speed with which they halted, and Mr. Prigozhin’s apparent escape — so far — from the grim fate of many Kremlin critics.
His location has been largely uncertain since the rebellion. Mr Prigozhin is known to have subsequently spent several days in Russia, and a video posted on the Telegram messaging app on Wednesday appears to show him in Belarus. The New York Times has verified that the video was shot Tuesday night in Wagner’s makeshift camp about 50 miles southeast of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
“Prigozhin started that day as a traitor at breakfast, he was pardoned at dinner, and then a few days later, he was invited for tea,” Mr. Moore told the audience. “So, there are some things that even the head of MI6 has a little difficulty trying to interpret in terms of who’s in and who’s out.”
Last week, Mr. Putin said that Wagner forces could continue to fight alongside the Russian Army in Ukraine, but without their leader.
“He is clearly under pressure,” Mr Moore said of Mr Putin. “You don’t have a group of mercenaries drive up the highway to Rostov and get within 125 kilometers of Moscow unless you completely predicted that would happen.”
Mr Moore was not the only British official to weigh in on Mr Putin’s situation on Wednesday. James Cleverly, British Foreign Secretary, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, said that no matter “how Putin tries to spin it, an attempted coup is never a good look.”
He also said that the details of rifts among the Russian elites were limited, but that there were “indications that things are not well.”
Russia ultimately withdrew from Afghanistan because internal Russian pressure became insurmountable, Mr. Cleverly said, referring to a decade-long conflict that ended in 1989. “And we’re seeing some of the evidence that a similar thing is happening,” he added.
Mr Cleverly said the uprising underlined the falsity of Mr Putin’s claims that Russia would be more committed to a long war in Ukraine than the West. “It proved the lie that underpins Putin’s strategic rationale,” he said.
“What Prigozhin said out loud is what we all instinctively knew: This was a completely unjustified and unnecessary invasion,” he added. “This was driven by Vladimir Putin’s ego and ambition. There was never a risk or threat to the Russian homeland or the Russian people.”