Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin may have played his assigned role by reportedly meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on June 29. But notwithstanding the contrived show of unity, it will not have been lost on Chinese President Xi Jinping that Mr Prigozhin's highly public mutiny last month has profoundly weakened the Russian leadership. With Ukraine on a counteroffensive and Russia's battlefield losses mounting, Mr Xi's "no limits" partnership with Mr Putin is quickly morphing into a military liability for China.
Of course, China insists that the Wagner Group’s abortive putsch did not threaten its own cooperation with the Kremlin. Just hours after Mr Prigozhin halted his march on Moscow, the Communist Party of China issued a statement dismissing the revolt as an internal matter. Inside China, news of Mr Prigozhin’s uprising has been sparse because censors have sanitised Chinese social media of any hint that Mr Putin may have been taken down a peg. State media have duly reiterated the regime’s support for Russia, portrayed the Western reaction as overblown, and declared Mr Putin’s position to be secure.
It is understandable that Mr Xi would maintain this façade, given how often he has waxed rhapsodic about China’s ties with Russia and his personal relationship with Mr Putin. The two men have met some 40 times over the past decade, repeatedly avowing a shared worldview. Mr Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine shortly after Mr Xi had announced their “no limits” partnership, and handshake photos during Mr Xi’s visit to Moscow in March — three days after the International Criminal Court indicted Mr Putin for war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest — conveyed that their bond remained strong.
In the multipolar world that China touts, Russia remains key to constraining the United States and its allies. The “comprehensive strategic partnership” that Mr Xi and Mr Putin announced in March encompasses everything from cooperation on “de-dollarisation” to pursuing parallel policies in Iran, Syria, and Africa — where China’s investments and rising profile complement Russia’s growing military and political presence. Notwithstanding the consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Mr Xi has emphasised that China’s strategy vis-à-vis Russia “will not be changed by any turn of events … no matter how the international landscape may change”.
Mr Xi also is ever mindful of maintaining stability at home. The last thing China’s economy — already facing intensifying headwinds — needs is rocky relations with Russia. Faltering industrial output, weak consumer demand, and flagging exports are all hampering China’s post-Covid recovery. Although Russia accounts for only 3% of China’s total trade, bilateral trade grew 30% in 2022, and has already grown another 41% as of May. China is buying Russian oil and gas at a deep discount, and its exports are helping Russia sustain the war and keep its economy afloat.
Moreover, Mr Xi is deeply invested in Sino-Russian military cooperation. On his watch, defence relations accelerated following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, despite the sanctions that followed. While bilateral defence cooperation may have plateaued since 2020, China is still benefiting from access to Russian advanced weapons, military exchanges, joint exercises, and high-tech air, naval, and early-warning systems.
But as important as such tangible returns may be, China cannot ignore the growing intangible liabilities associated with its ties to Russia. After 16 months of battlefield failures, the Russian armed forces have lost 50% of their combat effectiveness, Britain’s military commander estimates, with the United States putting the number of Russian casualties at more than 100,000 just since December.
It is safe to assume that China’s own generals are both stunned and disappointed by these results. The last war China fought was almost a half-century ago, against Vietnam. Any hopes that it had of drawing fresh insights from a winning Russian playbook in Ukraine have now been dashed.
The factors behind Mr Putin’s failures should trouble Mr Xi personally. Consider Russia’s competing chains of command and constant reshuffling of generals in Ukraine. China’s military brass will be wondering what to expect in any East Asian conflict that calls for joint operations with Russia.
Even without the Kremlin’s incompetence and confusion, the US government-funded Center for Naval Analyses concludes that Russia and China have a long way to go in creating an effective military partnership. As matters stand, “The episodic establishment of joint operation centres and the occasional use of each other’s military facilities remain the only cases of advanced military cooperation.”
Even more important for Mr Xi, Russia’s muddled decision-making is not confined to the battlefield. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Mikhail Komin suggests, the military’s tepid response to Mr Prigozhin’s putsch raises basic questions about its loyalties. Mr Xi is already familiar with this problem. As part of his sweeping anti-corruption campaign in the 2010s, he oversaw a highly publicised purge of the Chinese military to root out competitors and critics. One wonders what was going through his mind as the Wagner Group marched on Moscow while Russia’s armed forces did nothing.
China doubtless has its own view about Mr Prigozhin and the specific Russian military leaders whom he sought to challenge — namely Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov. But these are only a few of the many players in the Kremlin’s internecine struggle for position and privilege.
Others include Gen Shoigu and Gen Gerasimov’s respective predecessors, Anatoly Serdyukov and Nikolai Makarov. A decade ago, Mr Komin reminds us, they led a reform programme to revamp the military, ultimately discharging some 80% of the Russian Army’s colonels and 70% of its majors. That house cleaning opened the doors for new officers who are not beholden to today’s incumbents. These players are stationed across Russia’s 11 time zones and up and down its chain of command, and where their loyalties ultimately lie is anyone’s guess.
Likewise, it remains to be seen whether the questionable integrity of Russia’s chain of command will fundamentally change Mr Xi’s strategic calculus or global designs. The fact that Russian security services reportedly have detained at least 13 senior military officers and suspended or fired 15 others following Mr Prigozhin’s revolt can only be troubling for Beijing. For now, however, it would appear that Mr Xi cannot do without even a weakened and humiliated Mr Putin. ©2023 Project Syndicate
Kent Harrington, is a former senior CIA analyst and director of public affairs.