Wagner’s insurgency highlights China’s risks with Russia

A Chinese navy vessel near Dongju Island, Taiwan, April 10, 2023. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

A Chinese navy vessel near Dongju Island, Taiwan, April 10, 2023. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Just three months ago, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, was in Moscow to toast Vladimir Putin and express his confidence in the “strong support” the Russian president enjoyed among his people.

That trust is now in question, after Wagner’s private military group led an insurgency in Russia that shattered Putin’s image of invulnerability. Observers close to China say the mutiny, however short-lived, could lead Xi to cover up a close relationship with Russia that had exposed Beijing to global criticism and threatened some of its interests abroad.

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China sees Russia as a necessary partner in challenging the US-dominated world order. But Putin’s appetite for risk – seen in his invasion of Ukraine and reliance on private armies – has forced Beijing to defend its bond with Russia in the face of Western pressure.

Xi’s long-term gamble will only work if Putin stays in the driver’s seat to help defend the common interests of both countries. But the revolt raised questions about Putin’s authority: Wagner’s soldiers met little or no resistance from Russian regular forces as they advanced on Moscow. And Putin’s decision to grant refuge in Belarus to Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the uprising, looked more like a compromise than the act of a strongman with consolidated power.

“It makes China realize that the domestic politics of the Putin government are actually quite fragile,” said Xiao Bin, a research fellow at the Institute for Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The fragility existed before, but it has increased since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war.”

China has publicly reaffirmed its support for the Kremlin after the insurgency, and analysts say the relationship is expected to remain strong, at least externally, due to the two leaders’ converging interests.

But the mutiny also likely forced Beijing to consider how its own geopolitical, economic and territorial interests would be affected if Putin were suddenly toppled. This could cause China to distance itself somewhat from Russia.

During Putin’s 23 years in power, Russia’s relations with China have improved markedly since the Soviet era and the days of President Boris Yeltsin, when both sides sent dozens of military divisions to battle along the 2,600 mile border. they share.

Any regime change in Russia would now result in an instant toll on the relationship. China is fearful that a new Russian leader will realign the nation to a friendlier stance with the United States, Xiao said. This could leave China isolated in its rivalry with the United States and expose it to more pressure.

More extreme, a soured relationship between Beijing and Moscow could force China to redeploy troops to the border with Russia again, at the expense of other areas, said John Culver, a former US intelligence analyst on China.

“Reducing the number of troops along the border has allowed China to prepare for the greater potential for conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea or with India,” Culver said. “I don’t think enough has happened to make them rethink that, but for the first time they have reason to wonder if maybe they should.”

Any instability in Russia would also be a warning to China about the urgency of protecting the country’s supply of Russian energy imports.

At the same time, a weaker Putin could be an opportunity for China to make gains, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.

Beijing could consider accelerating its efforts to obtain more concessions from Russia. At the top of the list, China could have access to more Russian technology and more favorable terms for the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline project, which would help redirect Russian gas supplies that have historically gone to Europe to China.

Questions about Putin’s political future show how differently he and Xi have approached their shared goal of undermining US global power and reshaping the world order to better protect their countries’ interests.

Putin has been far more aggressive, launching the biggest war in Europe since World War II. In recent years, Xi has certainly taken a more bristling territorial stance, especially with Taiwan, Beijing’s claimed self-governing island democracy, using economic sanctions and military drills to keep the island on edge. But he has so far exercised caution to avoid tipping the stalemate into a war that could drag down the United States and its allies.

Xi also focused on consolidating power at home. From 2015, the Chinese leader began a major overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army to strengthen his grip on the military by ousting commanders deemed disloyal or corrupt and elevating his allies, in many ways to avoid questions. loyalty that Putin faces today.

Some see the Wagner Rebellion as the latest sign that China’s relationship with Russia is increasingly similar to its relationship with North Korea, a country that is notoriously erratic and exploits its volatile behavior to try to make pressure on China for more support in exchange for backing down.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, its trade with China has hit record highs. Beijing has also ensured that Moscow is not isolated diplomatically.

“Russia’s main motivation is to raise the price of its friendship to get the most out of its relationship with China,” Sung said. “Russia can do it when it seems reckless and unpredictable, much like North Korea.”

China has paid a considerable price for its support of Russia. The war has aggravated China’s strained relations with the United States and undermined its attempt to improve ties with Europe. The fighting in Ukraine has also drawn global attention to China’s aggressive stance towards Taiwan.

China has carefully managed these disadvantages at home. Chinese state media downplayed what it called the “Wagner incident” and praised Putin for defusing the crisis. The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party tabloid, accused Western media of “hyping” the rebellion to distort China’s ties with Russia. It seems that no attention was paid to Prigozhin’s claim that the Russian public was deceived into believing that NATO was responsible for the war.

“The Chinese government still believes in Putin’s control over Russia, and also believes in the long-term stability of Russian society,” said Wang Wen, executive dean of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute of Financial Studies. from Beijing, which follows developments in Russia. and visited the country after its invasion of Ukraine.

“It would be a strategic error of judgment to think that the Wagner incident could divide China and Russia.”

Despite general support for Russia, other notable Chinese experts have argued that the war has hurt China’s position in the world, including Yan Xuetong, a senior research fellow in international relations at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Speaking to reporters last month in Beijing, Yan noted that the United States has yet to send troops to defend Ukraine, but in comparison European NATO members have increased their presence in the region. Asia-Pacific region.

“From a security perspective, this war has not improved China’s security but has subjected China to more security threats,” Yan said, according to a translation of the Pekingnology bulletin.

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