China Watch: Chinese Views On Wagner ‘Coup’ in Russia

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SUMMARY: Beijing has reiterated its support for Russia after Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brief armed rebellion on 24 June.  State-affiliated media commentators in China posit that the quick resolution of the crisis reflects Vladimir Putin’s political strength rather than weakness.

Beijing promptly signaled its support for Russia and Putin in the aftermath of the Prigozhin rebellion.  On 25 June, PRC Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing and expressed China’s support for Russia’s actions in response to the 24 June rebellion.

PRC media comments suggest Beijing concluded that Putin remains politically strong because the incident was over quickly.  PRC leader Xi Jinping likely sees no reason to change China’s current policy of providing economic and political support to Russia, contrary to Western media speculation that Beijing may reconsider its support because the rebellion demonstrated Putin’s weakness. 

Although top PRC leaders have not commented on the Prigozhin incident, state media reporting and remarks by three well-known military- and state-linked bloggers provide clues to Beijing’s thinking:

  • The official Xinhua news agency on 25 June reported that Russia’s political elites, military establishment, and religious authorities all sided with Putin rather than with Prigozhin.  Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the nationalist newspaper Global Times, blogged on 26 June that the West had underestimated Putin’s political strength.  
  • Former People’s Liberation Army officer and popular military blogger Song Zhongping disagreed with US media commentary that Putin’s grip on power is slipping.  “It is the opposite,” Song commented on 25 June, saying that the incident showed that Putin controls the military and key levers of power.
  • Prominent foreign policy expert and professor Jin Canrong said in a video blog on 26 June that Prigozhin had miscalculated and did not anticipate popular opposition to his rebellion.  Jin said the crisis is not yet over because the Russian military needs to successfully integrate Wagner fighters into regular units.    

Beijing is unlikely to provide lethal aid to Russia because it does not want to run afoul of Western sanctions.  As we pointed out in the last issue of China Watch, China’s economic recovery is slowing and needs Western investment and market access to help spur growth.  Beijing knows that sending lethal aid to Russia is a red line for the US and Europe and will lead to serious economic consequences for China.