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China-Russia: Has the Wagner Group mutiny affected ties?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
June 27, 2023

The Wagner Group's attempted insurrection has drawn attention to how far Chinese President Xi Jinping is willing to go to support his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Xi Jinping stands next to Vladimir Putin
Chinese President Xi Jinping called his Russian counterpart a 'dear friend' during a March visit to MoscowImage: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP

In the wake of a brief uprising by Russia's Wagner mercenary group over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have tried to project an air of stability amid what appeared to be a serious threat to Putin's grip on power.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that the Wagner insurrection "exposed the weakness" of Putin's regime. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the incident demonstrated "real cracks" in the Russian president's authority and was a "direct challenge" to the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, China, Putin's most important international ally, downplayed the Wagner incident as "Russia's internal affair" in a two-sentence Foreign Ministry statement released Sunday.

"As a friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner in the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability," the statement said.

The Global Times, China's state-run tabloid, published an article on Sunday dismissing the notion that the Wagner revolt undermined Putin's leadership, citing Chinese experts who called those claims "wishful thinking" by the West. It also praised Putin's "decisive actions" in quashing the rebellion.

"The Kremlin maintains a strong capability of deterrence, which will further increase its authority," the editorial said.

These remarks came after Russian Deputy Foreign minister Andrey Rudenko traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and his deputy Ma Zhaoxu. 

It was unclear when Rudenko arrived in Beijing or whether his visit to China was in response to the rebellion. After the meeting, Russia said in a statement that China had declared its support for the leadership in Moscow.

How Russian media covered the Wagner rebellion

China and Russia's 'no limits' partnership

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Putin on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and used the occasion to proclaim a "no limits" partnership between their nations, while deriding the United States and NATO for "fueling antagonism and confrontation."

As Russia's war in Ukraine grinds on, Beijing has neither explicitly condemned nor supported the Russian invasion. That response comes even as countries like the United States and Germany have urged China to put more pressure on Putin to bring the conflict to an end.

In February, China released a position paper on a "political settlement of the Ukraine crisis," calling for "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries" to be "effectively upheld."

Other thinly veiled position points aimed at Western countries and NATO reject unilateral sanctions and "long-arm jurisdiction" along with "strengthening or expanding military blocs" to achieve regional security.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko (L) meeting China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang (R)
Was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko's (left) visit to China in response to the rebellion?Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China/AFP

Is Russia still a reliable partner for Beijing?

Although China's positions on paper indicate that Beijing remains ideologically aligned with Russia in opposing the US and its European allies, the recent insurrection has drawn attention to the conditions of China's partnership with Moscow.

However, it remains to be seen if one incident will change the calculus of Chinese President Xi Jinping on his relationship with Putin.

"I suppose this comes down to the role Xi sees for Russia," said Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

If China is simply looking for "a Russia that is distracting to the US and its allies, a weak, fragmented and disruptive Russia may be sufficient for the purposes," he told DW. 

If there is "some other actor in Russia who can better hold the country together and maintain the partnership in line with China's stance towards Western powers, Beijing could potentially shift its support," he said.

"Such an alternative is not visible at this time … Putin still seems like the best partner in Russia for China at this point," he added.

Russia's Putin under pressure after failed revolt

Lessons for China?

Despite China's willingness to show support for Russia, analysts said Beijing could also be watching for political and military lessons, particularly concerning Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing claims as Chinese territory.

"The Wagner mutiny serves as a warning for Xi Jinping," Tzu-yun Su, a senior research fellow at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told Taiwan's Central News Agency.

Su said that like Russia, China is also facing plenty of domestic issues, including a struggling economy, high unemployment and population decline.

In terms of the practical lessons China may learn from the Wagner mutiny, Chong said it reaffirms that "top leadership needs to have tight control over the military and security services."

"Xi has already been moving in this direction since coming to power," Chong emphasized. "The mutiny is likely to encourage him to move further in that direction."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn