Jun 27, 2023 - World

An unstable Russia could hinder Beijing's ambitions

Illustration of a chess piece with the dome of St. Basils Cathedral as the top.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The short-lived rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend may sow doubts that Russia can be the stable, reliable partner China needs to achieve its ambitions, experts say.

Why it matters: Beijing's ability to achieve its goal of creating an alternative to the Western-led world order may depend in part on the survival of a Russian regime willing and able to support that goal.

  • An unstable Russia would create a weaker security environment for Beijing and potentially hinder Kremlin support for China in the case of conflict with the West.

Driving the news: Over the weekend, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization with thousands of private fighters, directed his mercenaries to take control of a military command center in southern Russia and began to march on Moscow.

  • The uprising ended within 36 hours, as Prigozhin agreed to move to Belarus and Moscow said the fighters who participated wouldn't be prosecuted.

What they're saying: "The Wagner Group incident is Russia’s internal affair," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press conference on Monday.

  • "China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity."

The big picture: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin have cultivated a "no-limits" partnership based on their shared desire to topple the U.S.-led world order and legitimize authoritarian alternatives to liberal democracy.

  • "Strategic competition with the U.S. has been the dominant issue in Chinese foreign policy for decades," Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific section at Ukraine's Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, told Axios.
  • A stable and reliable Russia is vital to Beijing's strategy, Poita said. "Without Russia, I don’t think China could do it."

Details: Russia is well-placed to provide meaningful support to China in case of a crisis, such as heavy Western sanctions should the Chinese government move to annex Taiwan.

  • Russia has vast energy resources and shares a long border with China, meaning it could export oil and gas directly to China if the U.S. were to cut off other sources of energy.
  • Moscow holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, giving it wer over potential resolutions seeking to punish Beijing.
  • There's no other country that can play a similar role, Poita said. Iran, another revisionist power with close ties to Beijing, doesn't have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its economy is weak and heavily sanctioned, and its oil would have to reach China through open sea lanes and could be easily intercepted.

But the military uprising casts doubt on Russia's internal stability and the basic functioning of its national security apparatus, which did not appear to detect the coup in advance, even though U.S. intelligence did.

  • An unstable Russia would be less able to build the sophisticated infrastructure necessary to follow through on energy export deals with China.
  • Concerns over Putin's ability to maintain his grip on power could cause Beijing to assume "a more cautious stance on Russia," Shen Dingli, an international relations scholar in Shanghai, told The Guardian.

Of note: It's not just Beijing that may be concerned. U.S. officials are also alarmed at the prospect of a nuclear-armed power slipping into chaos or civil war.

Go deeper: A year after Ukraine invasion, Russia's reliance on China deepens

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