“One thing is very clear: Putin looks very weak,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. But a collapse of Mr. Putin’s government, she added, would pose its own hazards. The United States and its allies “should focus on supporting Ukraine while planning all possible scenarios, including a fall of the Putin regime and its replacement by a hard-right faction that will be more brutal and less restrained when it comes to the war in Ukraine.”
Even assuming he holds onto power, policymakers worry that Mr. Putin could grow more erratic if he feels backed into a corner. “Weakness begets riskier behavior on Putin’s part,” said Jon Huntsman Jr., a former ambassador to Russia under President Donald J. Trump. “There’s a new ripple in Putin’s ‘invincibility,’ which will be exploited from every angle.”
For Ukraine, which has been working in tandem with American arms suppliers and intelligence officials to push invaders out of its territory, the Russian internal strife provided a welcome balm after its long-awaited counteroffensive got off to a slow start.
The Wagner Group mercenary organization led by Mr. Prigozhin had been seen as the most effective Russian force on the battlefield, but with its charismatic leader heading to seeming exile in Belarus and its troops being absorbed by the Russian Defense Ministry, it may no longer be the ferocious fighting unit that it has been.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, the Prigozhin rebellion ended before major Russian forces were pulled off the front lines to protect Moscow, according to American information. But United States officials anticipate that the discord will fuel doubts already plaguing Russian troops about the point of the war and the competence of their leadership. And few believe that Mr. Prigozhin is a spent force who will simply go back to selling hot dogs, as he did as a young man. American officials expect that he still has cards to play.
Indeed, Kurt D. Volker, a former ambassador to NATO and special envoy for Ukraine, said the Prigozhin revolt spells the beginning of the end of the war and Mr. Putin’s tenure, even with the deal that short-circuited the march on Moscow.
“Don’t trust the reversal,” he said. “This is positioning. Prigozhin wants to be seen as a hero for Russians while he lines up more support and makes demands. The state will go after him and that can be his excuse for ‘reluctantly’ defending himself.”
As Mr. Volker put it, there will be “many more shoes to drop.”