China unlikely to be worried by ‘weaker Putin’ post Wagner revolt

‘New era’ ties are expected to continue given China and Russia’s shared concerns, with Beijing enjoying an even stronger position.

A close up photo of Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping has developed strong personal ties with Vladimir Putin [File: Mark Cristino/Pool via Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – Ties between China and Russia will remain strong even after the failed mutiny by the Wagner Group last weekend, but analysts say Beijing is likely to become increasingly cautious about Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the future stability of his government.

Beijing, like many governments, remained largely silent on Saturday as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary troops marched towards Moscow after seizing the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

The following day, as the dust settled and Prigozhin agreed to exile in Belarus, China released a statement. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the incident “Russia’s internal affair” and said it supported Russia’s attempts at “maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity”.

State media, which spent little time on Saturday’s events, also picked up on the theme of stability, noting the speedy resolution to the crisis by Putin’s government.

Still, despite the public messaging downplaying the weekend’s events, the mutiny probably did unnerve top Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, said Elizabeth Wishnick, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

“For Xi Jinping, developments in Russia this weekend would have had to be very concerning, as they raised questions about regime security, a top concern for the Chinese leader,” she said.

Xi, who has developed strong ties with Putin in recent years, is in the midst of extending his rule into a personal grip over China as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

For a government that emphasises stability at all costs, even locking down tens of millions for COVID-19 and overturning the economy to achieve it, a situation such as that faced by Putin as the Wagner Group advanced on Moscow would have been Xi’s worst nightmare.

“I think China will become more cautious in understanding that Mr Putin’s control of his country may not be as solid as people used to think. The perception that he is strong man in command of his country now has cracked,” said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar.

“That will be calculated into the decisions of all players, not only China… [but] Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany, the US,” he said. “Even Putin himself, he knows his image has been tarnished.”

‘Weaker Putin’

China and Russia have long had a complex relationship but the two sides have become closer since Xi came to power in 2013, thanks to his close friendship with Putin and their shared animosity towards the United States. Both view the US as meddling in their backyards, either through Ukraine and NATO or Taiwan and Japan, and both oppose expanded US influence in their respective regions.

The two countries declared a “no limits partnership” shortly before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, which was conspicuously held off until the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics. As the war drags on, China has helped keep Russia’s economy afloat in the face of Western sanctions despite maintaining an officially neutral position and offering to negotiate peace talks.

In March, Xi travelled to Moscow, shook hands with Putin, who had just been named in an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, and later agreed to a “new era” of cooperation between the two countries.

“While recent events are of concern to China’s government, because of both geographical proximity and shared challenges, they are unlikely to negatively affect China’s desire and commitment to working with Russia on both bilateral and global issues,” Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, told Al Jazeera.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping
The presidents of China and Russia toasted their two countries’ deepening relationship when they met in Moscow three months ago [File: Pavel Byrki /Sputnik via AFP]

Yurii Poita, the head of the Asia-Pacific section at Ukraine’s Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, agrees the partnership is expected to continue in the short term.

But he said Beijing might be making more contingency plans based on a revised understanding about the weaknesses in Russian security and defence.

The mutiny also exposed Russian elites as unreliable partners, he noted.

“We saw that Russian leadership just kept silent and some of them fled from Moscow to other cities. Even the price on the international flights just skyrocketed,” he said.

For Xi, who is known to surround himself with loyalists and install them in key government positions, such a scenario would have been another nightmare had it happened in China.

Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at Australian National University, said while he expected the close relationship between China and Russia to continue over the long-term, the feeling may begin to shift.

Russia was very much the junior partner before the coup and the mutiny has underlined that status, he stressed.

“Xi still prefers Putin to the alternatives but Beijing now has reasons to have more reservations and become more transactional in dealings with Putin,” Sung said.

“A weaker Putin will become less useful to China. A weaker Putin will have to be more beholden to domestic constituencies, less able to project a coherent foreign policy, therefore less able to consistently advance Russia’s common cause with China.”

Source: Al Jazeera