Short-lived as the Wagner rebellion was, its impact is rippling far beyond Russia’s borders. It could even be the beginning of the end for the coalition that Beijing led with Moscow against the free world, some analysts have said.
Prigozhin is now in exile in Belarus as a condition of a deal that assures that Russia won’t press criminal charges against him. But his flight—after leading a rebellion that posed 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.
Cracks have appeared in more than just 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 ‘Shaken’Beijing had maintained silence as Prigozhin’s forces marched on Moscow, addressing it for the first time only the 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 was because “it didn’t know what to say,” Chang said.
“The problem here for Xi Jinping is because he’s declared a ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia. And this ‘no limits’ partner was almost deposed in those stunning developments,“ he said. ”So I think China is a little bit shaken by this.”
Xi and Putin put forward the “no limits” partnership 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.
But the Wagner uprising took Beijing by surprise.
In 1991, in a similarly fleeting coup attempt, 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 word,” 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.
Troubles Back HomeA 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 Chinese armed forces must “enhance national security awareness” and be ready to “face major tests in a stormy sea.”
“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.”
Domestic issues will also keep Beijing on the alert, Chang said.
“The Chinese are always worried about color revolutions, as they say, and revolutions are contagious; they do spread,” he said.
The movement subsided with Beijing lifting the pandemic restrictions while quietly rounding up participants. But behind those protests, 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 that protesters have chanted.
Economists had hoped that the end of the zero-COVID policy would spur China’s domestic spending and revitalize the country’s sagging economy. On many levels, though, the situation in China doesn’t look much brighter than it did half a year ago.
“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,” Chang said.
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,” Dreyer told The Epoch Times. The economic slowdown will be the No. 1 issue that will get in the way of Xi realizing his ambition, she said.
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 war in Ukraine dragging on, Russia will likely find itself growing more reliant on China, now a main buyer of Russian oil that once went to Europe.
It’s a juncture that requires more decisive action from the free world, Chang said.
“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.