China extends support, US sees ‘real cracks’ in Putin’s rule

Published June 26, 2023
People stand near the closed Red Square in Moscow.—Reuters
People stand near the closed Red Square in Moscow.—Reuters

BEIJING/WASHI­NGTON: While China on Sunday extended its support to Russia in “protecting national stability” in its first official remarks on a short-lived armed uprising by Wagner mercenary group, the United States insisted the aborted revolt against the Kremlin exposed “real cracks” in President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

“As a friendly neighbour and a new era comprehensive strategic cooperative partner, China supports Russia in protecting national stability and achieving development and prosperity,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The issue was Russia’s “internal affair”, the ministry added.

Beijing had until late Sunday refrained from commenting on the weekend’s turmoil in Russia, which saw the mutiny’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin agree to go into exile after President Putin was forced to accept an amnesty deal.

On Sunday, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing.

The two diplomats discussed “China-Russia relations”, Beijing said, as well as “international and regional issues of common concern”.

In its readout of the talks, Moscow said Beijing had “expressed support for the efforts of the leadership of the Russian Federation to stabilise the situation in the country”.

Real cracks

The uprising by the armed Wagner group towards Moscow before they were called off in a stunning development for nuclear-armed Russia, marked “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News talk show “Face the Nation”. “So this raises profound questions, it shows real cracks,” the top American diplomat said.

The remarks were the first public declarations about the crisis by the United States, which over the past 24 hours had been intensively engaged in consultations with European allies on the revolt.

Blinken, making the rounds on multiple Sunday talk shows, said it was too early to speculate on the impact of the rebellion, either on the Kremlin or on the war in Ukraine.

But he deemed it an “extraordinary” series of events, in which a close Putin ally — who sent his private mercenaries into Ukraine to undertake some of the most brutal fighting of the war — rapidly turned against Russia’s leader and threatened the very centre of power in the Kremlin.

While 16 months ago Russian forces were on Kyiv’s doorstep, “now, over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making”, Blinken told ABC News show “This Week”. He said the Prigozhin drama had shown just how deep a “failure” the invasion of Ukraine has been for Russia, and how much Putin, whose grip on power had appeared absolute in recent years, is “being challenged from within”.

“Prigozhin... has raised profound questions about the very premises of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or Nato did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative.”

Putin on Saturday accused Prigozhin of treason and vowed tough punishment, but then accepted an amnesty deal in which the Wagner chief would avoid prosecution and leave for neighbouring Belarus.

Blinken said that Moscow being “distracted” over the revolt may “help the Ukrainians on the battlefield” in the midst of Kyiv’s counter-offensive against Russian forces. But “we can’t speculate” on how the Wagner crisis will play out in Russia, he added.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday the revolt by the Wagner group against President Putin had revealed “divisions” within the Russian leadership.

The abandoned march on Moscow “shows the divisions that exist within the Russian camp, and the fragility of both its military and its auxiliary forces”, Macron told the Provence newspaper, saying “the situation is still developing” and he was “following the events hour by hour”.

Mercenaries back to base

Wagner mercenaries were headed back to base on Sunday after Putin agreed to allow their leader to avoid treason charges and accept exile in Belarus.

The agreement ended the immediate threat that Prigozhin’s private army could storm Moscow, but analysts said Wagner’s revolt had exposed Putin’s rule as more fragile than had been thought.

“Anti-terror” security measures were still in place in Moscow, although fewer police were visible and passers-by said they were unconcerned, despite Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts remaining unclear.

He was last seen late on Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, to the cheers of a group of young civilian bystanders, who came to shake his hand through the car window.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2023

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