The sudden coup launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, ended dramatically in less than 24 hours, causing a major stir in Chinese public opinion; within a day, the pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia camps were caught in two extremes.
On the morning of 24 June, news of Wagner's coup started flooding the Chinese internet, with many we-media outlets sharing statements from Prigozhin and updates on the movements of the Wagner Group mercenaries.
Prigozhin claimed that the Russian army attacked Wagner’s camp, resulting in “enormous losses” for the Wagner soldiers. He said Wagner units had crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border at multiple locations and entered the Rostov region in southern Russia. Prigozhin further declared that his forces had shot down a Russian military helicopter: “We are going onwards and we will go to the end.”
Chinese officials did not respond to the Wagner coup, but state media reported on a statement by the Russian defence ministry, which said news and videos of the Russian defence ministry’s strike on Wagner’s camp were false and provocative information. The Kremlin also announced that various Russian agencies were providing round-the-clock reports to President Vladimir Putin on the situation.
On the afternoon of 24 June, Chinese state media reported on Putin’s televised speech regarding the coup. With a serious expression, Putin characterised Wagner's actions as “armed rebellion” and stated that “actions splitting our unity is a betrayal of our people, our combat brothers who fight now at the frontline. It’s a strike in the back of our country and our people.” Putin also warned: “Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will take an inevitable punishment.”
If Russia loses the war, they believe that China will face intense suppression from the US and its allies...
Chinese netizens fear impact on China
The Wagner coup has made many pro-Russia Chinese netizens nervous. They believe that Prigozhin’s rebellion will have a significant impact on the war in Ukraine. If Russia loses the war, they believe that China will face intense suppression from the US and its allies; China’s external environment will become more unfavourable, and the situation in the Taiwan Strait may deteriorate.
On the other hand, many Chinese netizens who support Ukraine couldn’t hide their excitement. Some of them posted messages saying:
“The mindset of the ‘yellow-Russians’ (referring to the pro-Russia faction) has collapsed.”
“Quickly organise the ‘yellow-Russians’ to save the king in Moscow.”
“When we wake up tomorrow, Moscow may have been liberated.”
One netizen named “Fan Bufan” (凡钚帆) lamented, "I have been battling with the 'yellow-skinned geese' (referring to pro-Russia netizens) on Weibo for over a year, no, it should be nine years, longer than the arduous eight-year resistance against Japan. Finally, I see the dawn of victory after enduring the insults, sarcasm, reports, blocking, and account bans by the ‘yellow-skinned geese’… Only I would know nine years of heartache!
“Finally, it's about to dawn.”
... referencing various mutinies in ancient China, from the An–Shi Rebellion of the Tang dynasty to the Chenqiao mutiny led by Zhao Kuangyin during the Later Zhou dynasty.
Into the night of 24 June, many Chinese netizens were still closely monitoring the situation in Russia. Prigozhin announced his intention to march northwards, and the Wagner troops rapidly advanced north along the Russian M4 federal highway. By about 9pm Beijing time, some we-media outlets cited Western media reports saying that Wagner troops had reached Tula, less than 200 kilometres away from Moscow.
At this point, various Chinese bloggers interpreted Russia’s situation by referencing various mutinies in ancient China, from the An–Shi Rebellion of the Tang dynasty to the Chenqiao mutiny led by Zhao Kuangyin during the Later Zhou dynasty. The bloggers also said that Putin could become another Emperor Xuanzong of Tang or Emperor Gong of Later Zhou.
Mixed reactions from pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine camps
Some pro-Ukraine bloggers even spread the news of Wagner’s rapid advance on Moscow in real time, with some alleging that Russian troops along the way did not stop Wagner but even joined them on the spot. Others claimed that the 217th Guards Airborne Regiment of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, the Russian military’s ace defenders, had already defected. Yet others alleged that the deputy commander of Russia’s Ukraine campaign, General Sergei Surovikin, had joined Prigozhin’s rebellion.
By this time, even some pro-Russia Chinese netizens had begun to attack Putin and the Russian military for failing to meet expectations and performing poorly...
Around 12am on 25 June, sources claimed that Wagner had already reached the outskirts of Moscow and was only 90 kilometres away from the city centre. Flights leaving Moscow had reportedly sold out, and Putin was about to lose his iron grip on power.
By this time, even some pro-Russia Chinese netizens had begun to attack Putin and the Russian military for failing to meet expectations and performing poorly, while pro-Ukraine netizens optimistically believed that NATO and Ukraine were about to win hands down, and that Prigozhin could only cede land and withdraw his troops to make reparations even if he seized Kremlin.
Around 1am on 25 June, news of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s mediation of the attempted coup suddenly broke. According to official reports from Belarus, after a day of mediation, Wagner would halt its advance on Moscow and return to its base to avoid bloodshed. In return, Moscow would drop its charges against Prigozhin and offer security guarantees for Wagner fighters.
Thereafter, Prigozhin also said in a statement that Wagner would turn around and return to its base to avoid spilling Russian blood.
... this attempted coup indeed reflects the existence of major problems and even crises in Russia’s politics and military.
This dramatic turn of events came as a shock to the Chinese netizens who were following the situation closely in Russia. Many netizens woke up the next day to find out that the Wagner mutiny that had swept across the internet on 24 June was over.
Some pro-Russia netizens started analysing the Wagner mutiny with new conspiracy theories; they claimed that this was all an act put up by Prigozhin and Putin to debilitate Ukraine and NATO forces, giving Wagner forces an opportunity to raid Ukraine or even seize Kiev.
However, both the pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine Chinese netizen camps agree that the Slavs probably think differently from the Chinese; analysing the straightforward and candid Slavs with thousands of years of Chinese history and political experience may be missing the point.
While Russia’s national conditions are starkly different from China’s and other countries, this attempted coup indeed reflects the existence of major problems and even crises in Russia’s politics and military. The situation is certainly more severe than some netizens have made it out to be.
To China, the Wagner mutiny is Russia’s internal affair. While netizens can watch the show as bystanders, officials cannot take a stand haphazardly. Due to the importance of the China-Russia relationship, this attempted coup must have been of great concern to Chinese officials. The way officials would respond to similar situations in the future has also become a new point of contention.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “俄罗斯兵变搅动中国舆论场”.
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