U.S. Asked Ukraine Not to Conduct Covert Attacks in Russia During Rebellion, Officials Say

The Biden administration asked Ukrainian officials not to conduct covert attacks inside Russia as the Wagner group rebellion was underway and advised them not to do anything that would influence the outcome of events or take advantage of the chaos, according to American officials.

At the time of the American outreach to Ukraine, U.S. officials did not know precisely what Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, had planned, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence, but they knew that Mr. Prigozhin wanted to take military action to force Sergei K. Shoigu, the minister of defense, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, from power.

They did not know how he intended to do that, or what he intended to do with them, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. The outreach came soon after Mr. Prigozhin began his rebellion, officials said.

In urging Kyiv to exercise caution, U.S. officials did not want to give President Vladimir V. Putin an excuse to claim that Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion was orchestrated by the United States or by Ukraine. They also said they believed that any high-profile operation by Ukrainian forces inside Russia was unlikely to have any major effect on Mr. Prigozhin’s goals, but would allow Mr. Putin to level accusations against the West, according to American assessments.

American officials specifically told Ukrainian officials that it was not the time to undertake cross-border attacks or covert sabotage missions, or to engage in any gamesmanship that Kyiv might think could give them an advantage in the war. U.S. officials said that as far as they knew, Ukrainian intelligence units acquiesced.

The caution appears to have worked, in part, as Russian officials began to signal in recent days that they did not believe the West was behind the rebellion and urged their embassies not to comment on it publicly.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia said on Wednesday that Moscow had gathered information that he believed showed that the United States told Kyiv not to take advantage of the rebellion.

“Instructions were sent to Kyiv so that the Ukrainians would not use this situation to organize sabotage on Russian territory and other provocations in the near future,” Mr. Lavrov told Russian television. “I cannot guarantee it one hundred percent, but this is reliable information that appears to be true.”

Mr. Lavrov’s remarks suggest that the Kremlin, for once, does not see the West as the primary culprit in the rebellion — unlike the attacks inside Russia believed to have been carried out by Ukraine, which the Kremlin often blames on the West. The Kremlin, at least for now, seems intent on assigning blame primarily on Mr. Prigozhin.

The United States believes most of the high-profile assassinations and acts of sabotage and drone attacks inside Russia are the work of Ukrainian operatives or sympathizers acting in some measure at the direction of parts of the Ukrainian government or intelligence services. But in many instances the United States is uncertain who exactly in Ukraine authorized the various operations.

Washington and Kyiv have disagreed over Ukraine’s covert action program, and the effectiveness of operations inside Russia. Senior American officials have periodically warned Ukrainians about their cross-border and covert actions inside Russia, and have repeatedly told them not to use American equipment in these operations.

Some Ukrainian officials believe the covert attacks are important because they demonstrate that Mr. Putin is not untouchable and that his control of the state is not as strong as he claims.

The caution from the United States came largely because of uncertainty about how events would unfold. The intelligence that U.S. spy agencies developed in the days before the rebellion began did not include Mr. Prigozhin’s plans to take the city of Rostov and then march on Moscow, the officials said.

Some U.S. officials believe Mr. Prigozhin was improvising much of his plan as he marched toward Moscow. That could explain the cloudy intelligence around how he intended the endgame of his rebellion to play out, officials said.

American officials feared a much bloodier outcome from likely clashes between Wagner forces moving north toward Moscow and Russian security personnel along the way, one senior U.S. military official said.

But for reasons that are still not entirely clear, U.S. officials said, Russian ground units, including the Russian National Guard, did not fire on Mr. Prigozhin’s advancing column. The Russian air force, however, did attack the rebels, but suffered serious losses: At least six combat helicopters and Il-22 airborne command post aircraft were shot down.

American officials said they believed Mr. Prigozhin was counting on support from at least some Russian commanders or security services. As that support failed to publicly materialize and the Kremlin rushed to mount a defense of Moscow, mobilizing thousands of security personnel, Mr. Prigozhin apparently began to have second thoughts about driving on.

At that point, Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, intervened with a plan to defuse the crisis, giving Mr. Prigozhin a face-saving off-ramp, U.S. officials said.

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