CHINESE THREAT MORE FORMIDABLE THAN “THREE ROGUES” BEHIND ABORTED RUSSIAN MUTINY
The foiled mutiny by mercenaries in Moscow last weekend ended as dramatically as it began, lasting less than 24 hours. But the incident, which momentarily had the world wondering if we would see a major shift in the war in Ukraine as Russia itself was plunged into civil war, is not expected to end there.
On Friday (June 23), Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the paramilitary company Wagner Group, which has fought in Ukraine as the private army of President Vladimir Putin, announced he and his mercenaries would begin to march on Moscow. They had come to within 120 miles of the Russian capital by Saturday morning.
Had it banded together with anti-Putin forces within Russia, Wagner could have pulled off a military coup. How then would Ukraine, the US, and Europe take advantage of the situation? What would become of Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons? How would China react? And how should Japan act? Naturally, many thoughts ran through my head.
In an emergency address on national television on Saturday, a stern-looking Putin denounced the march by the Wagner mercenary force as treason, declaring that anyone who had taken up arms against the Russian military would be punished. But he then disappeared from public sight after making the address. Putin, who was supposed to have been a peerless leader credited with having powerfully safeguarded Russia’s stability and the interests of the nation’s establishment, exposed himself as incapable of controlling even the private military company run by Prigozhin, his long-time close ally.
As I held my breath for further developments, Prigozhin abruptly turned his mercenaries around on Sunday, himself seeking an asylum in Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko reportedly mediated between Putin and Prigozhin, whom he has known for 20 years.
How did the mediation come about? A partial picture emerges from various media reports. BelTA, Belarus’ official news agency, reported that Putin called Lukashenko Saturday morning as the Wagner chief and his mercenaries approached to within 120 miles of Moscow. When Lukashenko made the offer to mediate, Putin first reacted negatively, saying that he would not expect Prigozhin to answer the phone. In the end, Putin took the offer and urged Lukashenko to call Prigozhin then and there. The Wagner chief answered the phone immediately, according to BelTA.
Lukashenko said the conversation between Putin and Prigozhin was ugly for the first 30 minutes or so, full of harsh profanity towards each other, but eventually Prigozhin calmed down, agreeing to avoid a bloody clash and turn his mercenaries back.
What US Intelligence Agencies Knew Regarding Prigozhin’s Mutiny
Granted that one cannot take BelTA’s reporting at its face value, as the agency takes priority in buttering up the dictator who has ruled Belarus for 29 years, but it would not be mistaken to surmise that Putin’s authority has suffered a crushing blow this time around. This conclusion is supported by the timing of his call to Lukashenko and the fact that, after initially condemning Prigozhin, he remained out of sight, failing to demonstrate the leadership expected of a strong leader.
On June 24, Russian authorities announced a four-point agreement reached with Prigozhin, including a decision to drop criminal mutiny charges against him and his fighters and to allow him to seek asylum in Belarus. It can be said, however, that there will be no guarantee that the agreement between the three “rogues” will be honored.
There were reports after Prigozhin began his retreat that Lukashenko received a call from a thankful Putin, who had once rescued him when he was in trouble. In August 2020, when huge protests swamped Belarus’ capital of Minsk daily after Lukashenko registered his sixth “victory” in Belarus’ presidential election, Putin sent Russian security forces and economic aid to support the dictator.
With Lukashenko’s position vis-à-vis Putin having presumably become relatively stronger thanks to his mediation this time around, some quarters in Belarus feel that the nation may be able to avoid being turned into a storage depot for Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. There is also talk that Belarus’ enhanced posture may allow it to reject Putin’s thinking that, because Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are of the same racial stock, they should essentially be subsumed into a unified Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin and Lukashenko share a commonality in their methods of governance—so much alike that they are often said to be twins. One recalls a hijack directed by Lukashenko in May 2021. A Belarusian Mig fighter force landed at Minsk a commercial airline flying over Belarus from Greece to Lithuania reportedly on the pretext of a bomb scare. After the landing, Lukashenko’s security forces burst their way into the plane to detain Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevic, a dissident and co-founder of an Internet media outlet who was playing a major role in the protest movement against Lukashenko. Protasevic was living in exile in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus in 2019. Like Putin, Lukashenko assumes a no-holds-barred approach in mercilessly eliminating dissenting opinions. Prigozhin is no different from Putin and Lukashenko in this regard.
In its June 24 digital edition, the New York Times reported how US intelligence services followed Prigozhin’s rebellion. Apparently, US intelligence officials got wind of what Prigozhin was up to and briefed senior military and administration officials on Wednesday (June 21）that the Wagner boss was preparing to take military action against senior Russian defense officials, according to the daily. Then on Thursday (June 22), the intelligence officials informed a narrow group of congressional leaders. The next day (Friday), as the world witnessed, Prigozhin started his march toward Moscow, and then on the day after that (Saturday) abruptly withdrew his forces.
The Biggest Task for Japan
But the US intelligence agencies kept silent to the international community about the information they had about Prigozhin’s plans. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February 24, the US declassified the intelligence about Putin’s invasion plans and then released it in hopes of shaping an international opinion that would deter Putin from invading. This time around, U.S. officials felt that if they said anything, Putin could accuse them of orchestrating a coup: the US clearly had little interest in helping Putin avoid a major, embarrassing fracturing of his support, according to the daily.
Meanwhile, one wonders what our Prime Minister Fumiko Kishida was doing all this while. President Joe Biden stayed in close contact with President Vladimir Zelensky and the leaders of nations like the UK, Germany, and France. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his Japanese counterpart on Saturday (June 4). Meanwhile, Kishida conferred for only 25 minutes the following day with the likes of deputy director of the National Security Agency, the vice minister for Foreign Ministry, and the deputy director-general, Bureau of Defense Policy of the Defense Ministry. One seriously wonders if 25 minutes was enough for Kishida to be briefed on matters pertaining to Prigozhin’s aborted rebellion, on which the other Western leaders were spending hours.
Prigozhin’s mutiny was very short-lived, indeed. But the wound it inflicted on Putin must be deep. At this juncture, there are a host of matters to ponder, such as the effects of the stunning uprising on the war in Ukraine itself and the moves China may make going forward.
In Beijing on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko, who later also exchanged views with Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu. It was announced that the diplomats agreed that China-Russia relations are at their best in history now, with Rudenko quoted by a Chinese Foreign Ministry source as remarking: “Russia earnestly hopes to continue cooperating with China so our mutually beneficial relationship will yield further results.” Rudenko’s remarks reveal Russia clearly is in a tight corner.
Viewed politically, the Ukrainian war has already been settled: Russia has clearly suffered a devastating political defeat. But the military outlook of the war is a different matter. Neither Russia nor China can accept defeat, their leaders desperately searching for a way to end the war by not “losing” it. The war has given China a good opportunity to support—and strengthen its control of—Russia and simultaneously exhaust the US and its European allies. Analyzing China’s moves precisely going forward so as to effectively cope with them is the biggest task Japan is faced with. Japan must constantly be on the lookout for China’s evil tentacles extending in all directions.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,055 in the July 6, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)