China has been studying the war between Russia and Ukraine. Experts on the mainland have called it a proving ground, supplying them with invaluable lessons to further their potential invasion of Taiwan. But as educational as the war may be, China can learn much more from recent events within Russia’s borders.
On Saturday, June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary force—a paramilitary organization serving Vladimir Putin’s interests in Ukraine—invaded the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, airing grievances over military leadership.
They initially vowed to keep going and march on Moscow. Instead, they stopped within 120 miles of the city after receiving word of a deal brokered between President Putin and Belarus’s leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko offered Prigozhin asylum, and the 25,000 men who took part in the incident were told they would be allowed to enlist in the Russian military without facing criminal charges.
The short-lived insurrection has been called the greatest threat to Putin’s rule since he took office 23 years ago. Prigozhin was met with cheers and fanfare. Citizens asked to take selfies with him as he made his way closer to Moscow, and he appeared capable of reaching the capital relatively unhindered. To make matters worse, there were reports that Putin had fled his residence in a private jet. However, Moscow officials have hotly contested this—likely in an attempt to cover up what would be interpreted as an act of cowardice.
To the Western public, it might seem like a bullet was dodged. But Putin has spent much of his political career building his reputation. He is known for displaying force. There are regular reports of his political enemies suddenly dying or finding themselves jailed over trumped-up charges. Dissidents are stamped out, and the country’s military might is showcased in grand parades. This is more than extralegal corruption and macho posturing. It’s meant to make his people feel secure.
The leader of Russia is supposed to be iron-clad—invincible, even. That’s why photos of a shirtless Putin wrestling a bear were released to the public. The Russian people need to believe in that persona. But now that Putin’s vulnerabilities—and more importantly, those of his government—have been made clear, he’s reached a moment of potentially fatal weakness, made worse by his failed promise to make swift work of the invasion of Ukraine. He’s made numerous attempts to save face domestically and internationally.
Almost as soon as Prigozhin’s insurrection ended, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko flew to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang. China released a statement labeling the incident an internal affair and supporting Moscow’s regime.
There was little comment on what had occurred. Instead, the matter seemed to have been dismissed. But the urgency of the meeting highlighted the importance the two countries place on their mutual cooperation.
On February 4, 2022, less than three weeks before Russia’s invasion, Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin met at the opening of the Olympic Games. They announced what has been called a “no limits” partnership, which they deemed to be closer than any diplomatic alliance.
It was obvious that China intended to aid in the war effort. When the international community imposed sweeping sanctions, hoping to strangle Russia into retreat. Beijing began pumping billions into the Russian economy, providing the necessary buffer the country needed to succeed. Chinese imports of Russian goods grew by nearly 50% in 2022, and trade is expected to hit more than $200 billion this year.
China has largely denied its strategy, instead choosing to publicly position itself as a peace broker, even going so far as to develop a 12-point plan to end the conflict. But they’ve shown no sign of ending their campaign of support. In fact, they seem to be doubling down.
On June 25, two days after the insurrection, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman released a statement saying, “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.”
Unfortunately, their cooperation extends well beyond trade. Both nations have denied that they have a military partnership, using carefully worded statements while simultaneously contradicting themselves. On March 26, Putin told state media that China and Russia are not creating a military alliance. But on April 18, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, who is playing a key role in the war against Ukraine.
During Li’s opening remarks at the meeting, he stated, “The armed forces of China and Russia will implement the agreements reached by the heads of state and expand military cooperation, military-technical ties, and arms trade.” He added that they planned on taking things to a “new level.”
The agreement between the two countries is far from one-sided. Should Xi choose to invade Taiwan, he would face conditions similar to those met by Russia in Ukraine—an inhospitable climate, economic disaster, and a lack of military resources.
The Taiwanese Strait, which divides the island from the mainland, is known for its volatile typhoons and bi-annual monsoon seasons, making invasion only possible a few months out of the year. When China’s forces do reach the island, they will have to contend with a small nation that has been preparing for their arrival for decades.
Taiwan has built a sizeable arsenal. They hold regular training exercises and have well-maintained anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, along with early warning radar systems. They also have an army reserve force of 2.3 million soldiers, ready to match the roughly 2 million serving in the People’s Liberation Army.
On top of the resources required to conduct the invasion, China would have to contend with the fact that the Taiwanese Strait is vital to world trade. They would cripple themselves and the surrounding nations, many of whom are vocally opposed to military action. These countries would likely join in with the United States and the EU, who are already determined to sanction Beijing if they move forward.
For China to successfully pull off the invasion, they will need to rely on the help of their “friendly neighbor,” and with Putin’s forces turning against him, he might not be able to provide them with the assistance they need. That is the lesson that China needs to learn from the Wagner insurrection.