Short-lived as it was, the Wagner rebellion has brought an impact rippling far beyond Russian borders. It could be the beginning of the end for the coalition that Beijing led with Moscow against the free world, some analysts have said.
In a dramatic 24 hours, the paramilitary group captured world attention as it took over the city of Rostov, a key tactical hub for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Leading the revolt was Yevgeny Prigozhin, a once-trusted ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin who described the action as a “stab in the back.”
Prigozhin is now in exile in Belarus under a deal that Russia won’t press criminal charges against him. But his flight—after posing the most serious test to Putin in the Russian president’s more than two decades in power—has far from closed the matter in the eyes of outside observers.
“We see cracks emerging,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS. “Where they go, if anywhere, when they get there, very hard to say,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ve seen the final act.”
The cracks have not just emerged in the Russian regime, according to geopolitical analyst Gordon Chang.
“China is trying to overturn the entire international system. Although China’s powerful, it’s not that powerful. It needs allies like Putin, and if Putin isn’t going to survive, then, China’s in trouble,” Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told The Epoch Times.
Beijing had maintained silence as Prigozhin’s forces marched on Moscow, only addressing it for the first time a day after a truce halted the movement of Prigozhin’s armed forces. “This is Russia’s internal affair,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement. “As Russia’s friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity.”
The delayed reaction from Beijing, Chang said, was because “it didn’t know what to say.”
“The problem here for Xi Jinping is because he’s declared a ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia,” he said of the Chinese leader. “And this ‘no limits’ partner was almost deposed in those stunning developments. So I think China is a little bit shaken by this.”
The “no limits” partnership Xi and Putin put forward came on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, as the two held their first in-person meeting in two years while scoffing at what they called the “interference in the internal affairs” from the West.
That was less than three weeks before Russia began an attack on Ukraine. About a year later, in March, Xi became the guest of honor in Moscow. In parting with Putin, the smiling Chinese communist leader said that they are the two driving forward “the change which hasn’t happened in 100 years.”
But the uprising has taken Beijing by surprise.
In a similarly fleeting coup in 1992, hardliners from the Soviet Union’s Communist Party locked up Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his Crimea vacation villa. The plot fell apart in three days, but it was the trigger that brought the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union four months later.
Chang sees Putin in a similar position.
“He was able to prevent the insurrection from toppling him, but Russia has been destabilized, so I don’t think we’ve heard the last words,” he said.
For the Chinese regime, which counts on Russia as an effective ally to subvert the U.S.-led world order, this doesn’t bode well.
“China tries to portray itself as invincible, as dominating the world,” Chang said. “Well, it doesn’t look so intimidating right now. It looked a lot more intimidating last week than it does at this moment.”
Troubles Back Home
A weakened political standing for Putin isn’t the only concern in Beijing’s calculus.
Days after the Wagner rebellion, Xi promoted two political commissars to the rank of general, a move some interpreted as his attempt to consolidate power. A Chinese military officer, writing for PLA Daily, the official newspaper of China’s highest military operational body, opined that the Chinese armed forces must “enhance national security awareness,” and be ready to “face major tests in a stormy sea.”
“China believes that Russia is in such a mess because there is no communist party control of the government, so Xi Jinping is going to absolutely heighten that position,” Miles Yu, director of the China Center at Hudson Institute and a senior China policy adviser to the Trump administration, told The Epoch Times. Xi, he noted, has purged many high-ranking military officials to consolidate power during his over a decade of rule.
“He knows there’s a lot of resentment within the military rank and file. So that’s why this issue has been very, very unsettling for him,” Yu said.
Domestic issues will also keep Beijing on the alert, said Chang.
“The Chinese are always worried about color revolutions, as they say, and revolutions are contagious—they do spread.”
Last November, a deadly blaze in a high-rise building in Xinjiang set off mass protests around the country. Demonstrators raised blank sheets of paper to push back against the regime’s harsh COVID lockdowns in what has been dubbed the white paper protests.
The movement subsided with Beijing lifting the COVID curbs while quietly rounding up participants. But behind it, Chang sees a broader spirit of discontent that isn’t going away.
“Some people actually were demanding the Communist Party and Xi Jinping step down,” he said, citing some of the slogans protesters have chanted.
Economists had hoped that the end of the zero-COVID policy could spur China’s domestic spending and revitalize the country’s sagging economy. On many levels, though, the situation in China hasn’t looked much brighter than half a year ago.
Local governments are facing defaults under a $23 trillion debt, those aged between 16 and 24 have a record jobless rate of above 20 percent; property sales have continued to plunge. The country is set to face what could be the world’s largest millionaire exodus this year, while a growing number of disillusioned individuals are also fleeing the country.
“There are no answers for Xi Jinping other than to clamp down even tighter, and that ultimately is not going to be a solution because the economy is falling away,” said Chang.
June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami, similarly sees the economic problems as a major hurdle.
“Putin may even be more dependent on China after the uprising, so China’s desire to lead the world order will be strengthened,” she told The Epoch Times. The economic slowdown, she said, will be the number one issue that will get in Xi’s way of realizing his ambition.
For now, China and Russia will continue to be “huddling together for warmth” as they face off against the West, with each taking what it needs from the relationship, said Su Tze-yun, director of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research of Taiwan.
With the Ukraine war dragging on, Russia will likely find itself growingly reliant on China, now a main buyer of Russian oil that once flew to Europe.
It is a juncture that requires more decisive action from the free world, said Chang.
“The world is at a critical moment, and right now the coalition that opposes us has cracked and could very well fall apart. It’s important for the Biden administration and free states to make sure that that coalition cannot be put back together,” he said.
Luo Ya contributed to this report.