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As China Throws Support Behind Russia, Analysts See Deeper Fissures

Russia's deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko, left, and China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang walk together as they meet in Beijing, June 25, 2023.
Russia's deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko, left, and China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang walk together as they meet in Beijing, June 25, 2023.

China has thrown its support behind Russia after a brief mutiny posed the gravest challenge to the 23-year rule of President Vladimir Putin.

However, analysts say the short-lived insurrection, has exposed “the irreconcilable conflict between Russia’s top political and military leadership,” as well as Putin’s flawed chain of command. This, they add, may not only foreshadow a Russian defeat in the Ukraine war but test the limits of ties between Beijing and Moscow.

In statement late Sunday night, China’s foreign ministry brushed off Saturday’s coup by the Wagner mercenary group, which dissipated in a day, as “Russia’s internal affair.”

“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 statement added.

China’s support followed a visit by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko to Beijing on Sunday, where he met with Foreign Minister Qin Gang and his deputy. During the meetings, the two sides reaffirmed their close partnership and discussed international and regional issues mutual concern, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry.

The statement did not mention the situation in Russia or Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Associated Press said Rudenko’s visit had not been previously announced.

China and Russia, while not formally allied, have maintained close ties throughout Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, which China has refused to condemn. Just before the war began, Moscow and Beijing announced that their relationship was greater than a traditional alliance and had "no limits."

Over the weekend, Chinese netizens voiced support for Russia.

A Weibo user, based in Chongqing, Sichuan, praised Putin as a “hero, who has easily relinquished [the Wagner chief’s] military command.”

But a Beijing-based Weibo user urged the Chinese to be rational, “throwing support behind anyone who will benefit China.”

Xueliang Ding, a retired professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told VOA Mandarin in a telephone interview Sunday that Russia hasn’t completely pulled back from the brink of a civil war.

Irreconcilable conflict

“This is the first time that an irreconcilable conflict between Russia’s top political and military leadership has surfaced. But this won’t be the last time,” Ding said.

Under a deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin will move to Belarus. Charges against the former Putin loyalist of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped and Wagner fighters who took part in the advance will not be punished.

If Prigozhin’s exile in Belarus turns out to be short, the Wagner forces under his leadership may remain a source of turmoil in Russia, Ding said.

As the Russia leadership tried to restore order on Monday, Putin’s regime still appears weakened since the armed rebellion has exposed flaws in the Russian president’s command chains, said Tzu-yun Su, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

That, along with corruption in the Russian military and its collapsing morale, may foretell Russia’s eventual defeat in its invasion of Ukraine, Sun added.

No Chinese military aid

Both Ding and Su said that China will not come to Russia’s military aid if the Ukraine people defeat the Russians.

“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping is extremely pragmatic. He won’t concede that he’s wrongly sided with Putin since China needs Russia as its geopolitical partner. But he will never send PLA soldiers to fight the Ukraine people. It’s only possible that he will provide the Russians with indirect assistances such as resources and equipment,” Su told VOA Mandarin in a video chat on Sunday. China’s People’s Liberation Army is known as the PLA.

Citing U.S. intelligence, Su said Chinese private firms sold assault rifles and drones to the Russian military. China supports Russia with military supplies such as field rations and by buying its natural gas, gasoline and crude oil. After the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, many nations including the U.S. and the U.K stopped importing Russian crude oil and gasoline in an effort to financially hinder Moscow’s war effort.

Ding also said that “the price will be too dear to pay” if China sends military aid to the Russians.

“It’s never good news for China to lose a partner [should] Russia suffer a defeat. But China needs to do a lot to bail Russia out. Firstly, China needs to provide Russians with the best available weaponry, which will then harm the strength of China’s own troops. Then [international] sanctions will follow” to haunt China, Ding said.

Parallels in the Taiwan Strait

Su said that the chaotic coup staged by the Wagner Group under Prigozhin could also make Xi think twice about starting a war in the Taiwan Strait.

“This teaches Xi a big lesson. Russia struggles in fighting the ground battle in Ukraine. If Xi plans on crossing the Taiwan Strait and invading Taiwan with amphibious forces, the stakes will be higher. Also, if the attack goes on for a long time, his rule will be threatened,” said Su.