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The U.S. was not involved in the Wagner Group's revolt in Russia, Biden says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We turn to the armed mutiny in Russia over the weekend. President Biden said nothing in public as the events unfolded. And when he finally broke his silence on Monday, he made it very clear that neither the United States nor its allies had any involvement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We had to make sure we gave Putin no excuse. We emphasized - we gave Putin no excuse to blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO.

FADEL: So that's Biden explaining the silence. NPR's White House correspondent, Franco Ordoñez, was listening, and he's here with us now. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what did you learn?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, yesterday, Biden gave a little more insight to all that he was doing at Camp David during all this action was happening. You know, he said he was getting hour by hour updates from his national security team and that he directed them to prepare for a range of scenarios. He didn't go into details, though. And he also said that it's too early to draw any conclusions about the lasting impacts but that his team continues to assess the fallout. And as you noted at the top, the key message he wanted to deliver - and he wanted to deliver it to cameras - was that the United States had nothing to do with Russia's troubles and that this was an internal struggle with the Russian system.

FADEL: So explain that. Why was that so key to make sure the U.S. wasn't perceived to have been involved?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, a little of it might've had to do with knocking down this Russian state media account alluding to an investigation of Western involvement. But what this really seems to be about is wanting to kind of stay out of a very fraught situation. I spoke to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who advised the Biden transition team on Russian policy. You know, she says Biden was making it clear to Putin that the administration was not going to try to exploit this incident for its gain.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: There is a long-held belief, not just for Putin but really of the security services in Russia, that the United States will seek to use instability to try to break up the Russian state and to keep Russia down.

ORDOÑEZ: And with so much tension, you know, the biggest fear is a misunderstanding, the kind of misunderstanding that could spiral out of control. And there is another audience here, and that's the rest of the world. Kendall-Taylor says the White House is trying to counter that narrative that the U.S. likes to meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries. And that's something that Russia and China like to promote.

FADEL: But did the administration say anything about what this has done to Putin's grip on power?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said yesterday that it does show Russia's military is not as vaunted as the Kremlin likes to make it out to be. But he also cautioned that, you know, those who are trying to predict Putin's demise - he noted that Putin still commands a very large and capable military. And tens of thousands of Russian troops are still fighting in Ukraine and fighting very vigorously.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, and also, just to remind people, this private mercenary group that marched towards Moscow is key in the fighting in Ukraine for Russia. Did the White House say anything about what this means for Ukraine and also for Russia's stability?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the White House says it's too soon to really say how this will all play out, but it will be clearly an important item discussed at next month's NATO summit. And it also raises some concerns about instability in Russia, a lot of concerns, which is always a big deal when dealing with a nuclear power. I'd also point out that the White House says it remains committed to Ukraine and that there will be another financial package for Ukraine announced later this week.

FADEL: NPR's White House correspondent, Franco Ordoñez, thank you so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.