US suspected Prigozhin was preparing to take military action against Russia

WASHINGTON – Senior US national security officials had indications as early as Wednesday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, was preparing to take military action against senior Russian defence officials, according to officials briefed on the intelligence.

The information suggests that the United States had at least some warning of impending chaos in Russia, just as it warned in late 2021 that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning to invade Ukraine.

In this case, the information was considered both solid and alarming because of the possibility that a major nuclear-armed rival of the US could descend into chaos.

Although it is not clear exactly when the US first learnt of the plot, intelligence officials conducted briefings on Wednesday with the administration and defence officials.

On Thursday, as additional confirmation of the plot came in, intelligence officials informed a narrow group of Congressional leaders, according to officials familiar with the briefings who spoke on condition of anonymity.

By Friday night, Prigozhin had dramatically escalated his feud, launching a march on Moscow that the Russian government described as an attempted coup.

On Saturday, he called his fighters off and agreed to flee to Belarus after a day of tumult.

For months, intelligence officials have tracked rising tensions between Prigozhin and leaders of Russia’s defence ministry, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Intelligence reports released as part of the Discord leaks showed that the US had intercepted communication among senior Russian military leaders debating how to handle Prigozhin’s constant demands for more ammunition.

Most of those tensions played out in public, as he used interviews and Telegram posts to berate Mr Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, calling them incompetent and charging that they misled Mr Putin about the progress of the war with Ukraine.

But it was only in recent days that intelligence officials got the initial warnings that Prigozhin might take action.

Officials said intelligence agencies did not know what the results of such action would be, but they were immediately worried about how they might affect the control of Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. US President Joe Biden, speaking in October, talked of the dangers that Mr Putin would pose if he felt cornered and said the US was looking for “off-ramps” for Mr Putin.

CNN earlier reported that the US briefed Congressional leaders about their concerns that Prigozhin was preparing to challenge Russia’s military leadership.

Since he took action on Friday, US officials have been locked down, saying little publicly about his intentions or what they knew about events on the ground. Officials have been wary, both because events were moving fast and because they did not want to give Mr Putin any excuse to blame the West for Prigozhin’s actions.

But several officials said they fully expected that Mr Putin would eventually say the uprising was the result of a foreign plot. NYTIMES