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For China, Putin's Russia Has Become A Lesson In How Not To Exercise Power

There are many lessons to be taken from Yevgeny Prigozhin's aborted uprising in the halls of power China. Going forward, Beijing will see Russia as a model on what to avoid in maintaining stability autocratic rule.

​Vladimir Putin walks up stairs following an address.

Vladimir Putin after his address to various Russian government agencies.

Pierre Haski


Russia is an endless source of lessons for China. In 1991, after the demise of the USSR, the Chinese Communist Party produced a film to learn from its lessons. It was shown to all Party cadres as a kind of anti-model. Thirty years later, Russia once again demonstrates the mistakes to avoid if one wants to be a lasting dictatorship.

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China remained silent on Saturday as the Wagner mutiny unfolded. It waited for its conclusion before downplaying what was described as a mere "incident". The day after, a Russian vice-minister was in Beijing to reassure the country, as China is the most vital ally to Russia during times of economic sanctions.

It is not necessarily displeasing to Beijing to see Vladimir Putin weakened, as it strengthens China's influence. However, Beijing is concerned about him being too weakened, as it would no longer serve Beijing's interests in its cold war with the United States. This is now the risk at hand.

Moscow's nervousness

China and Russia have been continuously growing closer for at least a decade, based on their shared hostility towards Western domination. This is the ideological foundation of their friendship “without limits,” to borrow the phrase used in a joint statement just before the invasion of Ukraine.

However, it is not a formal alliance like during Stalin's era; mistrust is never far away. A foreign leader recently visiting Central Asia reported that the presidents of these former Soviet countries regularly received calls from Putin, essentially telling them, "Don't rush into the arms of the Chinese too quickly, we will win in Ukraine..." This is a sign of Moscow's nervousness when faced with China's growing influence.

The Wagner mutiny adds to the Chinese frustrations with Russia's underperformance

The Wagner mutiny adds to the Chinese frustrations with Russia's underperformance since the beginning of the war. Beijing, for instance, publicly condemned any nuclear weapon blackmail.

photo of xi jinping and vladimir putin walking in the kremlin

Xi hosted by Putin in Moscow in March

Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA

A lesson for Xi

In October of last year in Samarkand, Putin was filmed telling Xi Jinping that he would address his "concerns" regarding Ukraine. However, these concerns were never publicly expressed by the Chinese leader.

The turmoil in Russia thus reinforces the Chinese leader's relatively detached stance on Ukraine.

In April of last year in Beijing, Xi shared with Emmanuel Macron that he would never criticize Putin publicly due to the United States's hostility towards China. However, he added an interesting remark regarding Ukraine, saying that it was not “his” war. The spectacle of the turmoil in Russia thus reinforces the Chinese leader's relatively detached stance on Ukraine.

When comparing Russian and Chinese authoritarianism, a contrast appears: in China, within the power camp, there is only one prominent figure, Xi Jinping. Someone like Prigozhin would not have a place there as he reminds one too much of the Chinese "warlords" of the early 20th century, which is considered too risky.

Xi Jinping will draw at least one lesson from these events: he will be strengthened in his vision of a centralized Party that controls everything, particularly the military. Russia is definitely seen as a model of what not to do from Beijing's perspective.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putinism Without Putin? USSR 2.0? Clean Slate? How Kremlin Succession Will Play Out

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, political commentators have consistently returned to the question of Putin's successor. Russia expert Andreas Umland foreshadows a potentially tumultuous transition, resulting in a new power regime. Whether this is more or less democratic than the current Putinist system, is difficult to predict.

A kid holds up a sign with Putin's photograph over the Russian flag

Gathering in Moscow to congratulate Russia's President Vladimir Putin on his birthday.

Andreas Umland


STOCKHOLM — The Kremlin recently hinted that Vladimir Putin may remain as Russia's president until 2030. After the Constitution of the Russian Federation was amended in 2020, he may even extend his rule until 2036.

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However, it seems unlikely that Putin will remain in power for another decade. Too many risks have accumulated recently to count on a long gerontocratic rule for him and his entourage.

The most obvious and immediate risk factor for Putin's rule is the Russian-Ukrainian war. If Russia loses, the legitimacy of Putin and his regime will be threatened and they will likely collapse.

The rapid annexation of Crimea without hostilities in 2014 will ultimately be seen as the apex of his rule. Conversely, a protracted and bloody loss of the peninsula would be its nadir and probable demise.

Additional risk factors for the current Russian regime are related to further external challenges, for example, in the Caucasus. Other potentially dangerous factors for Putin are economic problems and their social consequences, environmental and industrial disasters, and domestic political instability.

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