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Biden is tightening the screws on Putin even as the United States denies any role in Russia’s uprising.

The brief uprising in Russia has given President Biden the most precarious form of a problem that has stumped the previous five US presidents: how to deal with Vladimir Putin.

Every American president since Bill Clinton has tried to reach out to the ex-KGB agent whose humiliation at the fall of the Soviet Union inspired him to make it his goal to restore Russian glory. The majority of people have hoped for a fresh start in US-Russia relations. The relationship between the two nuclear superpowers continued to deteriorate despite these efforts.

Even after then-President Bush met with Vladimir Putin and claimed to have “a sense” of the man’s “soul,” Putin invaded Georgia while Bush was in office. At first, President Obama considered the Russian leader as a potential friend in his effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. Putin nonetheless annexed Crimea in 2014. In addition, Donald Trump became overly enamored with a dictator and US adversary whom he frequently resembled and failed to consistently oppose.

Senator Biden had fewer illusions about Putin than others since he came of age in Washington during the most brutal years of the US-Soviet conflict in the 1970s and 1980s. But even he made an effort to warm things up by attending a summit with his opponent in Geneva.

However, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he strengthened NATO and established a massive supply line of weapons and ammunition to assure Ukraine’s survival. It is possible that mercenary head Yevgeny Prigozhin’s revolt over the weekend was aided by the tense battlefield conditions brought about by the Western assistance that has allowed Ukraine to fight back against invading forces.

On Monday, Putin was seen boasting that he could have easily put down the rebellion if Wagner Group leader hadn’t decided to call off his march on Moscow in exchange for an apparent exile to Belarus.

The showdown was widely viewed as the most significant threat to Putin’s rule during his age and may have signaled the first signs of the end for his dynasty outside of Russia.

Therefore, Biden faces a scenario that none of his predecessors who fought with Putin had to consider: that he is dealing with the endgame of this modern czar, and the prospect of instability shaking a nuclear powerhouse that might have global ramifications.

The avoidance of a more serious conflict

The United States and its allies made it plain that the showdown between Putin and Prigozhin, which was eventually called off, was an internal Russian problem during the upheaval that gripped Russia this weekend. Biden went out of his way to dispel the impression, outlining how he had talked with Western leaders on the correct approach, after Moscow opened a propaganda front on Monday by stating it was exploring if Western intelligence was involved in the coup attempt.

They concurred with me that we couldn’t afford to give Putin any room to maneuver. I cannot stress this enough: we gave Putin no reason to blame the West or NATO for this. Our disinterest was made quite plain. The president assured the press that his administration was not involved in any way.

On Monday, it was claimed that the United States had advanced notice of Prigozhin’s plans but had communicated this information with just a few number of high-ranking officials and friends, the British included. This new information looks to be the latest proof that the United States has been receiving top-notch, reliable intel from within Russia for at least a year. This probably irritates Putin much and could make him even more isolated.

Biden’s statements, meanwhile, underscored the strange contradictions in his approach to Putin. While sending billions of dollars in arms and ammunition to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to fight for the survival of his country, President Joe Biden has insisted that the United States is not involved in a showdown with Russia, doing everything he can to avoid a direct clash between NATO and Russian forces that could risk an escalation to World War III.

However, the red lines keep growing. When Putin ordered his soldiers across the border last February, the influx of weapons, heavy artillery, Patriot anti-missile missiles, and tanks seemed unimaginable.

Still, it seems safe to assume that Biden is telling the truth when he says the United States had nothing to do with the weekend uprising. The United States has no interest in a showdown between a Russian leader wanted for war crimes and a warlord like Prigozhin, whose hired guns are accused of a litany of horrors in Ukraine and Syria.

Moscow’s accusations of Western involvement in the revolt appear to be a distraction from the divisions that threaten to undermine Putin’s power. They look like they’re trying to get the Russian people to band together against an imaginary foe. Putin has consistently framed Russia’s conflict with Ukraine as a fight against what he perceives as the West’s attempt to strip Russia of its just place as a global superpower. That’s a red herring, as the real problem is that Putin illegally pushed soldiers into Ukraine, igniting a war that’s shown the Russian military to be badly commanded and prepared rather than the formidable force that sustained the Soviet Union.

Western responses that are changing

While the United States and its allies were careful not to appear triumphant during Prigozhin’s insurrection, their governments are now looking to politically capitalize on the event in an effort to increase pressure on Putin within Russia.

While the United States was not directly participating in the insurrection, Secretary of State Antony Blinken contended on American Sunday talk shows that it indicated flaws in Putin’s leadership. On Monday, this became a common refrain across Europe.

“The insurrection led by Prigozhin is a threat to President Putin’s power on a scale that has never been seen before, and it is abundantly evident that Russia’s support for the war is beginning to show signs of fraying,” Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom James Cleverly stated. After several days of conversation between top officials in the Western alliance, European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell adopted a similar approach. He argued that recent developments prove Russia’s military might “is cracking,” and that the instability is now “affecting [Russia’s] political system.”

It is too soon to write off Putin, say several veteran American analysts.

I interpreted this as Prigozhin’s desperation to keep the Wagner Group going. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, told on Monday that while Putin’s military position is “undeniably” reduced, he does not see this as a populist danger to Putin or as eroding the aura of Putin’s invincibility.

Putin has provided no indication that he will pull back and return the soldiers home in the face of pressure from Moscow’s enemies. His leadership might be in jeopardy if he takes such a risk without securing benefits he can publicly tout as a success. This explains why thousands of Russian troops have been pushed into a fight that has wrecked Russian pride and harmed its geopolitical position in Europe (Prigozhin described the battle in Bakhmut a “meat grinder”).

Putin’s cult of himself as an untouchable autocrat was punctured by Prigozhin, and now he faces a new political front at home as the war in Ukraine continues to go poorly.

Unless Putin is able to restore his control, Biden may become the first American president of the 21st century to successfully outmaneuver the Kremlin’s strongman.

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