The weekend mutiny of the Wagner Group, pathetic as it may look in hindsight, is certain to affect Russia’s ability to sustain its aggression against Ukraine and to repel the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive.
But it will also resonate in a much wider sense.
One of these wider impacts is a significant and potentially crucial setback for Moscow’s efforts in galvanizing support in the regions of the Global South, often described as the “non-Western majority” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 4).
President Vladimir Putin has positioned himself as the champion of the struggle against the United States’ “hegemony” and Western dominance. Initially, this bold stance appeared attractive to many populists in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and appeared useful to the Chinese leadership. In the broad coalition of democracies supporting Ukraine, the importance of countering these Russian intrigues has been duly recognized, and the sudden demonstrated weakness of Putin’s control over domestic affairs can help in exposing the falsity of his claims of promoting a more representative and fair multipolar order (Kommersant, June 23).
A suspicious China
One profoundly important driver of these opinions is the position of China, which has invested massively in the development and stability of the Global South. Beijing was suspicious rather than supportive of Moscow’s conflict manipulation, including the dispatching of various offshoots of the Wagner Group (Carnegie Politika, June 22).
The Kremlin has pinned heavy hopes on the escalation of the fundamental geopolitical conflict between China and the US, and the recent visit to Beijing of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been described as “fruitless” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 19). The reopened prospect of a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping is perceived as a serious problem, for which Putin — who did not find it opportune to call his “dear friend” Xi during the especially tense weekend — has no solution (Komsomolskaya pravda, June 2).
An ambivalent India
No less important is the ambivalent stance of India, which seeks to revive its former role as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and abstains from voting in the United Nations General Assembly on resolutions condemning Russian aggression.
Indian energy companies have found opportunities to profit from the war by importing Russian oil with deep discounts without violating the Western sanctions regime (see EDM, April 27; Forbes.ru, June 17).
However, this short-term trade boom cannot compensate for the inevitable decline in Russian arms exports, as the Indian military command is disappointed in the quality of weapon systems and increasingly wary of the consequences of relying on this presently “occupied” supplier (RBC, June 23). The recent state visit to the US by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was covered rather curtly in Russian official media, as the Kremlin is worried about the pronounced disapproval of the war in New Delhi and the reiterated support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 22). Addressing the US Congress, Modi placed a strong emphasis on India’s commitment to democracy, and the Wagner mutiny illuminated the fact that autocracy in Russia is far from stable (Kommersant-FM, June 23).
A prioritized Africa
The region that Russian diplomacy grants priority to is Africa, and the much-advertised Russia-Africa Summit to be held in St. Petersburg in late July 2023 is supposed to consolidate Moscow’s influence, despite its obvious inability to invest (Vedomosti, June 20).
One traditional Russian partner is Algeria, and its president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was the guest of honor at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, sharing the stage with Putin and calling him a “friend of all humanity” (RIA Novosti, June 16).
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa did not go that far, but his initiative to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv (where a group of visiting African leaders had to retire to a shelter during a missile strike) was clearly tilted in Russia’s favor (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 20). Ramaphosa will host the BRICS (loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in August, and while Putin’s presence is, for all intents and purposes, precluded by the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, the prospect of enlargement of this loose organization (Tebboune expressed a strong desire to join, and Iran has applied) is warmly welcomed in Moscow (see EDM, April 19; Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 14).
What was not welcomed, however, was the interest expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron in attending the Johannesburg summit as an observer (RBC, June 22). Moscow is irked by Macron’s comments on Russian attempts to destabilize Africa, but the assurances of “friendly and constructive relations” cannot erase the first-hand experiences that many African states have had in encountering the violent Wagner mercenaries (Izvestiya, June 23).
In the aftermath of the shocking mutiny, the Wagner Group may be disbanded and Putin may try to punish its boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, despite the hastily negotiated pardon. Even so, several other paramilitary and quasi-private enterprises will certainly be established by the Russian special services to perform dirty and deniable missions in African conflict zones (Novayagazeta.eu, June 24).
Without reliable economic instruments, Russian foreign policy relies on its capabilities of conflict manipulation for projecting influence. Even the experience in protracted talks around the “grain deal” on exporting corn and wheat from Ukraine has demonstrated to most interested parties that Russia can be a significant part of the problem but hardly any part of the solution for the complex food crisis in the Global South (RIA Novosti, June 14). Putin excelled at performing the role of crisis manager in various localities from Kazakhstan to Mali.
Exposure of weakness
Yet, the inability to prevent the mutiny, which had been brewing for months, and to deal with it forcefully and resolutely, despite strong rhetoric about “treason” and “stabbed in the back,” has destroyed his reputation, as well as that of his loyal Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Republic.ru, June 25).
This exposure of weakness makes it next to impossible for Putin to pretend to be an equal partner and a particular friend of Xi, or to project the image of much broader public support for his autocratic rule than that of the democratically elected leaders of Brazil, South Africa or Turkey.
Continuing missile strikes on Ukrainian cities cannot alter the now evidence-based perception that the war against Ukraine started on delusional assumptions and was executed with criminal means, which, ostensibly, can only end with the collapse of the shockingly incompetent and deeply corrupt Putin regime. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not need to rely on his remarkable power of persuasion in communicating with fence-sitting leaders of the Global South; he might simply mention the events of June 24.
- Pavel K Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by Eurasia Daily Monitor