Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin called off his advance on Saturday and reportedly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile in Belarus. Details of the agreement have not been made public.
However, Prigozhin reportedly said that arms and ammunition supplies were not sent to him in time, and his men were getting killed. He allegedly demanded that President Putin remove some of the generals of the Russian army.
The Wagner Group controlled key military facilities in Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of Russia’s southern military district. Hostility between the group and the Russian army is nothing new.
Russia has used the mercenary group as plausible deniability and claims limited direct involvement, as in Syria and Sudan. Russia had used it in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The same year the group was used in the Donbas region in 2014.
Since the Russian war against Ukraine did not come to a quick end as Moscow had expected, and Russia’s gains went fuddled so much so that Kremlin had to deploy the Wagner Group openly in operations against Ukraine
It is now known to observers that there are differences among the Russian army cadres, and the leadership is not in complete unison as is being given out.
Generally speaking, numerous instances show the civilian authority not always trusting the generals. If that is the case with Putin, he is not a lone example. President Lincoln did not trust General Lee.
But the aborted insurrection of Prigozhin has created strong reverberations in Beijing and shaken the entire polity of the country. Beijing is closely watching its spillover.
Soon after the Wagner Group announced its acceptance of the deal, Russian deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang and his deputy Ma Zhaoxu.
Beijing must have been more eager to know the Putin-Russian army relations. The first reaction from Beijing to the insurgency episode in Russia was a brief statement from the Chinese foreign ministry that the “Wagner Group incident was an internal affair for Russia.”
This cryptic statement was directed to the US and its Western allies that China would take any adversary remark on the incident as interference in the internal affairs of a state that the Geneva Convention disallows. It also puts at rest any speculation from any quarter that China has any misgiving on the incident.
Our inference is drawn from a separate statement from the Chinese foreign ministry saying the two diplomats had discussed “Sino-Russian relations and international and regional issues that are of common concern.”
China Underplays Uprising
Chinese deputy foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, added that “under the strategic guidance of Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia had continuously deepened political mutual trust and enhanced practical cooperation.”
This can be interpreted as an indirect assurance to Moscow that if the need arises, China could “practically” cooperate with Russia in meeting the recurrence of any threat to the territorial integrity of Russia.
Exchange of assurances and re-commitment of cooperation in stabilizing the domestic situation by the two sides after the events speak more than what one may infer from the formal rhetoric. Insights into some comments from academia as well as sections of media would make the discussion spicy.
“One incident alone will not have a direct impact on the China-Russia relationship or on China itself. But the overall international situation, including the future direction of the Russia-Ukraine war, the uncertainty of Russia’s future development, the geopolitical challenge, and the significant shifts in China’s surrounding environment will have a profound historical impact on China,” says Feng Yujun, Director for the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University.
On an international level, the Russian army may no longer command the awe it had built up after WWII. Wagner insurgency could become contagious within the Russian army, which has suffered incredible losses to a hundred thousand soldiers. Wagner Groups’ exit from the battlefield in Ukraine weakens Russian thrust.
Sanctions imposed on Russia and the costly war in which Russia is embroiled will impact the future of Russia’s development. It will affect the environment surrounding China, given Beijing’s not-too-smooth sailing in its relations with Taiwan. Yujun asserts that the situation in Russia may have eased, but the deep political division within the country remained unresolved.
Almost similar views are held by Liu Weidong of the American Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He argues that China holds Russia as a key partner, and its domestic stability is essential to Beijing, particularly as ties with the West have deteriorated. Therefore, Beijing is expected to enhance communication and exchange with Russia and President Putin.
The crux of Beijing and Moscow’s reassurance of mutual trust and cooperation, in the words of an anonymous analyst, is as this: “A failure on the front lines of a major military action, such as one to unify Taiwan with the mainland, could help unofficial militant groups spring up – a risk Chinese leaders have to prepare for.”
The Wagner uprising has established that Russia has always been an example for China to prepare for national security risks. Liu has drawn a thoughtful inference when he says, “…The rebellion was a cautionary tale for how Beijing should manage its ties with the military.”
In China, the leadership’s grip on the armed forces has tightened since President Xi Jinping assumed power, and the People’s Liberation Army has been told to obey the Communist Party.
In May last, Xi said in a National Security Commission meeting that China needed to prepare for “worst-case and most extreme scenarios.”
We do not see mercenaries in mainland China; the party enjoys unified leadership over the military. Why the leadership warns of an “extreme scenario?”
Li Nan, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, put it more bluntly “The events (in Russia) could offer lessons to Beijing about the relationship; between the military and the civil sector.”
After the Wagner Group episode, Beijing will probably learn a lesson and try to recalibrate civilian–army relations. It has to be seen whether President Xi will come down with a heavy hand on suspected defiant elements in the PLA or will adopt a carrot-and-stick policy.