Wagner’s revolt weakening Putin’s authority ‘wishful thinking’ of the West: experts
Published: Jun 25, 2023 09:10 PM
A police officer with a service dog and a traffic police officer patrol a street in Moscow on June 25, 2023. A counter-terrorist operation regime is still in force in Moscow city, after the Wagner private military group was accused of trying to organize an armed rebellion.Photo:VCG

A police officer with a service dog and a traffic police officer patrol a street in Moscow on June 25, 2023. A counter-terrorist operation regime is still in force in Moscow city, after the Wagner private military group was accused of trying to organize an armed rebellion.Photo:VCG

Under the mediation of Belarus, the Wagner rebellion, which was widely characterized as a coup targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin by Western media, ended within about 24 hours. Such dramatic changes in the situation from Friday to Saturday attracted the world's attention as some Western analysis considered this "armed rebellion" as a heavy blow to Putin's power, exposing the weakness of his leadership as the Ukraine-Russia war entered a stalemate, which some Chinese experts say is "wishful thinking" by the West regarding Russian politics. 

Following a short-lived revolt, Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin will leave Russia and move to Belarus under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which ended an armed rebellion that Prigozhin had led against Russia's military leadership, Reuters reported. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin's agreement, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years. Peskov said that the criminal case that had been opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, and that the Wagner fighters who had taken part in his "march for justice" would not face any action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia, according to the media report. 

The long-standing feud between the Wagner chief and Russia's military evolved into an open confrontation on Saturday as Prigozhin's forces moved into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advanced hundreds of kilometers toward Moscow. 

Some Chinese experts believe that the withdrawal of the Wagner soldiers is a rational choice as Prigozhin's top priority is to gain more attention, especially from Putin, to bring up his demands rather than launching a real mutiny against the Russian leadership. 

Despite the Western media saying that the revolt exposed the weakness of the Putin administration, the rebellion was quelled in such a short period of time after Putin vowed to take decisive actions on Saturday morning. This in fact shows that the Kremlin maintains a strong capability of deterrence, which will further increase its authority, some experts said. 

In response to the report of retreat of Wagner soldiers from Russia's Southern Military District as its chief Prigozhin accepted a proposal from Belarusian president Lukashenko to ease the tension while Russian President Putin has guaranteed that Prigozhin can go to Belarus and will rescind criminal case on him, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Sunday night that this is 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, a spokesperson from the ministry said.

U-turn scenario 

As a private military group, Wagner's main impetus is profit, and its feud with the Russian Defense Ministry led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has a long history. Since the Ukraine war started, the conflict between the two sides has been on the rise. 

As the Wagner forces were ending the march after demanding the resignation of Russia's top defense officials, Prigozhin said his fighters had led a "march for justice" over the past 24 hours, and to avoid the scenario of bloodshed, he ordered his forces to turn to their columns around and go in the opposite direction back to a field camp as planned, according to media reports. 

"Prigozhin has not actually launched a coup against the Russian government but protesting in such a way to express his dissatisfaction toward top Russian defense officials and to demand better treatment for the Wagner group," Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

Friction between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry has risen as the war has dragged on, ultimately reaching breaking point on Friday when Prigozhin accused military leaders of striking Wagner camps, the Moscow Times said. 

Previously, Prigozhin raised concerns about the Russian forces' slow progress amid heavy battles in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Soledar. He also accused the Russian military of attempting to "steal" victories from Wagner.

Despite Wagner's retreat, some Western media such CNN and The New Yorker came up with analysis saying that "Putin is at risk of losing his iron grip on power" and "Putin's weakness unmasked." CNN said "this is not the first time this spring we have seen Moscow look weak. The drone attack on the Kremlin in May must have caused the elite around Putin to question how on earth the capital's defenses were so weak."

The West has been paying close attention to the situation, hoping to instigate an anti-Russia sentiment, which is a common tactic and also part of its cognitive warfare since the Ukraine crisis started, Cui Heng, an assistant research fellow from the Center for Russian Studies of East China Normal University, told the Global Times on Sunday.

"However, quelling the revolt in such a short period of time actually consolidated the authority of the Putin administration, which has little impact on the frontline battlefield between Russia and Ukraine," Cui said. 

President Vladimir Putin has appeared on Russian state TV on Sunday for the first time since Wagner revolt began, according the Guardian. 

Putin renewed his commitment to the war in Ukraine, calling the "special military operation" his top priority.

West's wishful thinking 

While events were unfolding, US officials carefully avoided direct comment on what some stressed was an internal situation in Russia, some media reported, as they tried to avoid what analysts said might suggest the US was trying to exploit the situation and play into long-standing Kremlin narratives about US-led attempts to weaken Russian security. 

US President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the UK amid concerns that Putin's control over the country could be slipping, and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell avoided direct comment on what he called an "internal" issue for Russia. 

On Sunday, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing, exchanging views on China-Russia relations and global and regional issues of concern, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. 

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu also met with Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday, saying that  under the complex and severe international situation, it is necessary to follow the important consensus reached by the two heads of state, communicate in a timely manner, ensure the stable and long-term relationship between China and Russia, and safeguard the common interests of both sides.

The Chinese and Russian diplomats also exchanged views on the Ukrainian crisis and other international and regional issues of concern .

"Thinking that this revolt targets Putin is wishful thinking, as some Western politicians are used to looking at Russian politics in their imagination, showing that they don't understanding the basic conditions of Russia," Wang said. 

Some Western politicians hope to see Putin lose control of the country while Russia falls into chaos so Russian troops will retreat from Ukraine, and some hope to weaken or split Russia, which all led to such exaggeration of the Wagner revolt, he noted. 

Although the revolt ended within about 24 hours, the retreat of Wagner solders left some questions unanswered including how to solve the long-standing conflict between the paramilitary group and the Russian military. 

Still, the rebellion will have a negative impact on the Russian political situation and on the stability of the Russian military. How to eliminate those external impressions about a weakening leadership and enhance order could be a test for Putin in the future, experts said. 

Such a dramatic event will make Putin and the Russian authorities more clearly aware that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine cannot be protracted, as the longer the war lasts, the more domestic problems and conflicts will accumulate, Wang said. 

"Those events could push Putin to accelerate the end of the Russia-Ukraine conflict to avoid similar risks, and further strengthen ties with neighboring countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan," he said.