WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden declared Monday that the United States and NATO played no part in the Wagner mercenary group's short-lived insurrection in Russia, calling the uprising and the longer-term challenges it poses for President Vladimir Putin's power "a struggle within the Russian system."
Biden and U.S. allies supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia's invasion emphasized their intent to be seen as staying out of the mercenaries' stunning insurgency, the biggest threat to Putin in his two decades leading Russia. They are concerned that Putin could use accusations of Western involvement to rally Russians to his defense.
Biden and administration officials declined an immediate assessment of what the 22-hour uprising by the Wagner Group might mean for Russia's war in Ukraine, for mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin or for Russia itself.
"We're going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend's events and the implications from Russia and Ukraine," Biden said. "But it's still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going."
Putin, in his first public comments since the rebellion, blamed "Russia's enemies" and said they "miscalculated." He did not specify whom he meant.
Over the course of a tumultuous weekend in Russia, U.S. diplomats were in contact with their counterparts in Moscow to underscore that the American government regarded the matter as a domestic affair for Russia, with the U.S. only a bystander, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
American diplomats also stressed to Moscow that they expected Russia to ensure the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Americans detained in Russia, Miller said.
In a video call between Biden and leaders of U.S.-allied countries over the weekend, all were determined to give Putin "no excuse to blame this on the West," Biden told reporters at the White House.
"We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it," Biden said. "This was part of a struggle within the Russian system."
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Putin in the past has alleged clandestine U.S. involvement in events -- including democratic uprisings in former Soviet countries and campaigns by democracy activists inside and outside Russia -- as a way to diminish public support among Russians for those challenges to the Russian system.
The U.S. and NATO "don't want to be blamed for the appearance of trying to destabilize Putin," McFaul said.
A feud between the Wagner Group leader, Prigozhin, and Russia's military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into a mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov. They rolled for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around Saturday in a reported deal whose terms remain uncertain.
Biden's national security team briefed him hourly as Prigozhin's forces were on the move, the president said. He had directed them to "prepare for a range of scenarios" as Russia's crisis unfolded, he said.
Biden did not elaborate on the scenarios. But national security spokesman John Kirby addressed one concern raised frequently by the public, news media and others as the world watched the cracks opening in Putin's hold on power -- worries that the Russian leader might take extreme action to reassert his command.
Putin and the Kremlin have made repeated references to Russia's nuclear weapons since invading Ukraine 16 months ago, aiming to discourage NATO countries from ratcheting up their support to Ukraine.
"One thing that we have always talked about, unabashedly so, is that it's in nobody's interest for this war to escalate beyond the level of violence that is already visited upon the Ukrainian people," Kirby said at a White House news briefing. "It's not good for, certainly, Ukraine and not good for our allies and partners in Europe. Quite frankly, it's not good for the Russian people."
After the mutiny, Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made public comments Monday aiming to play down the crisis.
In an 11-minute audio statement, Prigozhin said he acted "to prevent the destruction of the Wagner private military company" and in particular in response to an attack on a Wagner camp that killed 30 of his fighters.
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over the weekend, telling him, "'No matter what happened in Russia, let me say again, no matter what happened in Russia, we in the United States would continue to support Ukraine's defense and sovereignty and its territorial integrity." He said he intended to speak with Zelenskyy again late Monday or early today.
Biden, in the first weeks after Putin sent tens of thousands of Russian forces into Ukraine in February 2022, had issued a passionate statement against the Russian leader's continuing in command. "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," he said then, as reports emerged of Russian atrocities against civilians in Ukraine.
On Monday, U.S. officials were careful not to be seen as backing either Putin or his former longtime protege, Prigozhin, in public comments.
"We believe it's up to the Russian people to determine who their leadership is," Kirby said.
White House officials were also trying to understand how Beijing was digesting the Wagner revolt and what it might mean for the China-Russia relationship going forward. China and Russia are each other's closest major partner. The White House says Beijing has considered -- but not followed through -- on sending Russia weaponry for use in Ukraine.
"I think it'd be fair to say that recent developments in Russia had been unsettling to the Chinese leadership," said Kurt Campbell, coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the White House National Security Council, speaking at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think I'll just leave it at that."
China values Russia as a friend in part to keep from standing alone against the U.S. and its allies in disputes. With Russia's invasion and resulting international sanctions sapping Russian resources and now sparking a rebellion, McFaul said, Ukraine and its allies could make the case: "'Xi Jinping, you know, if you want your buddy to stay in power, maybe this is the time to put some pressure on him to wrap up this war."'
Putin on Monday blasted organizers of a weekend revolt, the gravest threat yet to his power, as "traitors" who played into the hands of Ukraine's government and its allies.
Speaking in a stern tone and looking tired in a five-minute TV address near midnight, Putin sought to project stability. He tried to strike a balance between criticizing the uprising's perpetrators to prevent another crisis and not antagonizing the bulk of the mercenaries and their hardline supporters, some of whom are incensed at the Kremlin's handling of the situation.
Putin, whose troops are stretched thin in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, praised the rank-and-file mercenaries for not letting the situation descend into "major bloodshed." And he said the nation had stood united, although there had been localized signs of support for the uprising.
Earlier in the day, Prigozhin, who led the rebellion, defended his short-lived march. He again taunted Russia's military, but said he hadn't been seeking to stage a coup against Putin. On Friday, Prigozhin had called for an armed rebellion to oust the military leadership.
Putin's address was announced by his spokesman in advance and billed by Russian state media as something that would "define the fate of Russia." In fact, the address didn't yield groundbreaking developments.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst, called the address weak. In a Facebook post, he said it was a sign that Putin is "acutely dissatisfied with how he looked in this whole story and is trying to correct the situation."
The Kremlin later showed Putin meeting with top security, law enforcement and military officials, including Shoigu, whom the uprising had tried to remove. Putin thanked members of his team for their work over the weekend, implying support for the embattled Shoigu. Earlier, the authorities released a video of Shoigu reviewing troops in Ukraine.
Putin, who declined to name Prigozhin, said mutiny organizers had tried to force the group's soldiers "to shoot their own."
He blamed "Russia's enemies" and said they had "miscalculated."
Prigozhin said he had been acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. "We started our march because of an injustice," he said in an 11-minute statement Monday, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.
The injustice apparently was a government order requiring Wagner soldiers, if they want to remain fighting, to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1, which might effectively disband the group despite its battlefield successes in Ukraine. Prigozhin also accused Russia's military of attacking his troops, prompting his march.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday.
Prigozhin boasted that his march was a "master class" on how Russia's military should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 500 miles toward Moscow without facing resistance.
It remained unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin said Lukashenko proposed finding a way to let Wagner "continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction." That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn't clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.
Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.
Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn't been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head. In his address Monday, Putin didn't repeat threats he had made Saturday to punish the mutiny's leaders.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has clashed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, deserve "a bullet in the head."
And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed a request with Russia's prosecutor general's office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion.
Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.
In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow's mayor announced an end to the "counterterrorism regime" imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
For months, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war's longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry's command. He said Wagner had planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in Rostov, but they were attacked.
It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia's troops suffer low morale. Wagner's forces were key to Russia's only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had "gained impetus" in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting
Zelenskyy said Monday after visiting troops in the war-torn Donetsk region that his military had advanced there as well as in Zaporizhzhia. "Today, our warriors have advanced in all directions, and this is a happy day," he said in his nightly address, without providing details.
Information for this article was contributed by Seung Min Kim, Aamer Madhani, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Lee, Lorne Cook, Jill Lawless and staff writers of The Associated Press.