When the Wagner mutiny first happened in late June, it shocked most strategists and observers in China. To them, it added a whole new layer of uncertainty to their understanding of Russian domestic politics, the Russian-Ukrainian War, and China’s overall external security environment. With Russian President Vladimir Putin now appearing to put the mutiny behind him, China’s policy toward Russia is unlikely to change dramatically. However, the mutiny’s impact on China’s assessment of its future external strategy should not be ignored.
The mutiny offered a rare but clear example of vulnerability and instability within the Russian system. This raises more questions for Beijing about the future of its alignment with Moscow, as a weak and divided Russia will not be as useful in countering Washington. And if Russia descends into chaos, it will significantly alter China’s external security environment, forcing Beijing to refocus at least some attention back to its the northern border. The mutiny also illustrates the fragility of an authoritarian system under stress, potentially making Chinese leaders more cautious about any military adventurism on China’s periphery. Although the mutiny appears over and its political repercussions minimized, Chinese strategists continue to wonder if it has raised the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Beijing is unlikely to abandon Russia even if that happens, but remains worried about the diplomatic consequences.
The View from Beijing
Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the possibility of ensuing instability has loomed large in the minds of Chinese Russia experts. After Russia failed to achieve a quick and decisive victory, these experts have warned in private conversations and track II dialogues that, as in the past, military setbacks could lead to regime collapse. Feng Yujun, for example, spelled out the pattern in a recent article: the 1856 Crimean War led to the demise of Tsar Nicholas I and the Emancipation Reform of 1861; the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War led to the 1905 revolution; the loss in World War I led to the 1917 revolution, the end of the Romanov dynasty, and the collapse of the Russian empire; and the failure in the 1979 Afghanistan war is seen by China as a key factor in the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union.
By late 2022, there were discussions about Putin’s political enemies launching a coup. But such speculation was dismissed on the grounds that Putin’s opponents had been jailed, and there was no identifiable threat from within the Russian military. What’s more, Beijing had regarded the Wagner Group as Putin’s personal private army and a core pillar of the Russia military operation in Ukraine. In China, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin was nicknamed Putin’s “chef” and seen as his protégé, a man whose betrayal of Putin was not imaginable.
Against this backdrop, Prigozhin’s mutiny came as a major surprise to government and nongovernment observers in China. Chinese analysts saw the Wagner mutiny as an internal split within the Putin establishment, especially a disagreement between the Ministry of Defense and the Wagner troops over the strategy and costs of the war.
For the few days after the mutiny, the priority of Chinese policy wonks and analysts was focused on discussing Prigozhin’s goals and his future. Hu Xijin shared the assessment of many of his colleagues in concluding that Prigozhin did not aim to overthrow Putin. Instead, he was targeting the Defense Ministry establishment that had “exploited” Putin’s military operation and the Wagner Group’s strength and achievements to benefit themselves. This echoed the Russian idea of the good tsars and bad boyars, in which Putin’s efforts were undermined by functionaries lower down the bureaucratic ladder pursuing narrowly selfish goals.
Beijing’s Calculated Reactions
Throughout the mutiny, China has followed its traditional approach toward countries undergoing internal turmoil or military coups — treating it as the country’s “internal affairs” and expressing support for “peace and stability.” It was clear from the beginning that Beijing was not going to step in or take an explicit position. China usually waits for the dust to settle before picking a side rather than rush in and pick the wrong one. Beijing has done this many times with Pakistan, Myanmar, and African states such as Sudan. In private discussions, Chinese experts saw Beijing’s decision to host Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko a clear sign of its pro-Putin position and a judgment that the mutiny would not succeed.
Moving forward, prominent Chinese Russia experts such as Feng Yujun are not at all convinced that General Secretary Xi Jinping will abandon Putin as the result of the munity or that China will abandon its strategic alignment with Russia in the foreseeable future. According to what one expert told me “Even if Russia has a different leader, the political conservatism and ultra-nationalism determine that the new leader will neither be pro-West nor embraced by the West.” The implication is that China and Russia will still share fundamental and similar positions on their relationship with the West, especially the United States. And those similarities will anchor their continued strategic alignment and coordination in world affairs, even beyond Putin.
Having said that, among the Chinese experts, the impact of the Wagner mutiny is recognized as far-reaching and significant. First, Putin is weakened, and this weakens China’s strategic posture. The mutiny reflects the domestic political struggle in Russia — not only the escalation of conflicts among different camps, but also Putin’s inability to rein them in. Even if the mutiny is settled for now, those deeply rooted conflicts are far from being resolved. They will continue to bring major uncertainty and distraction to Russia’s domestic politics.
Chinese observers now see a civil war or regional conflict in Russia as a real possibility for the first time. This means Beijing has to divert some of its attention and resources to a potential contingency in Russia and the instability it could bring to Central Asia and the Sino-Russian border. As Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University said, “Many people worry that Putin’s political standing isn’t stable, and that the political turmoil in Russia could affect China.” The fear is not necessarily that a Russia without Putin would be hostile, but that the transition itself could be destabilizing.
Second, a weaker Putin and a weaker Russia are much less helpful in China’s competition with the United States. Distracted with domestic political struggles, Putin’s ability to effectively back China’s position on regional and global affairs will come under severe constraints. Given the increased unpredictability and uncertainty of Russian politics, Moscow could possibly be a bigger strategic liability for Beijing than it has been so far. This would be particularly true if Putin risked using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
While no one expects the Wagner mutiny to have an immediate impact on the battlefield, Beijing may conclude that Putin will now be motivated to end the war sooner rather than later. Chinese observers are regularly reminded by their Russian counterparts that this could mean the use of tactical nuclear weapons. According to my conversations with a retired senior Chinese military officer, Beijing would condemn this but would take no additional steps to change its fundamental position on Russia. Europe and more broadly the international community will demand Chinese actions against Russia in the event of nuclear use. Refusing to do so will incur significant diplomatic and political repercussions, undermining the goal of retaining some European sympathy and improving relations with the United States. In this context, it is telling that China’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, restates China’s opposition to the use of nuclear weapons whenever he is asked.
Last but not least, the consensus in China is that Xi does not face a similar risk — for now. Private security forces are so marginalized in China’s security apparatus that they hardly constitute a credible threat. But the Wagner mutiny demonstrates how positions, priorities, and interests within the defense establishment can diverge when a major external military operation fails. If the system begins to crack under the pressure, leaders do not always have the degree of control they thought. The invasion of Ukraine has already offered many lessons to China’s military regarding Taiwan. This risk of an internal split adds one more to the list.
Overall, the Wagner mutiny has put China in a more cautious and defensive posture. Chinese foreign policy wonks see less appetite in Beijing for a war in the foreseeable future. This may not immediately translate into less provocative military behaviors in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea, as Beijing still believes it has room to push the envelope without major escalation. But Beijing’s openness to risk-neutral or even risk-seeking adventurism may be tempered by a firmer conviction that China cannot afford a war at the moment.