How Russia’s Allies May React to Prigozhin’s Mutiny Against Putin


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Even before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia broke his public silence on Monday about the aborted mutiny that brought rogue troops to within 125 miles of Moscow, he was on the phone to the leaders of Iran, Qatar and other friendly countries, soaking up their expressions of support while presumably promising a return to stability.

For Mr. Putin, who has cobbled together a surprisingly sturdy list of countries that either back his war on Ukraine or have stayed neutral, it was a much-needed display of mutual reassurance. Russia’s message, it seemed, was business as usual on foreign policy, even after the alarming events of last weekend.

As rattled as they may have been by an armed insurrection in a nuclear-weapons state, Russia’s friends and business partners are unlikely to abandon Mr. Putin, according to diplomats and analysts. The more likely scenario, they say, is for them to hedge their bets against further Russian instability.

“I’m not surprised at any of those public statements,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia. “It’s not in our interest or anyone’s else interest to stir things up. But privately, if your goal is stability, then you should be worried about Putin’s ability to provide this stability.”

Mr. McFaul said the rebellion of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin presented Ukraine and its allies with a fresh chance to persuade foreign leaders, from Beijing to Brasília, that backing Russia, or staying neutral, was the wrong bet.

But to make that case, they will have to prevail over a complex web of motives on the part of leaders who have lined up with Russia, whether ideological, strategic, commercial, or even — as in the case of a few — simple self-preservation.

China, Mr. Putin’s most important patron, views Russia as a linchpin in its campaign to blunt the global ambitions of the United States. Though President Xi Jinping is not reported to have spoken to Mr. Putin since the crisis, on Monday the Chinese foreign ministry reaffirmed its support for Russia, calling it a “friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era.”

That came a day after Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Andrei Rudenko, met in Beijing with the Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, as part of a visit that appeared to have been scheduled before the uprising. The meeting was publicized by the Chinese state media, which said the two men discussed the “Ukraine crisis,” among other issues.

“Xi’s worst-case scenario is a weak Putin that loses the war and ultimately gets ousted,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University. “A weak Russia denies China an ally in its competition with the U.S. and, perhaps worse, leaves Xi isolated globally and under pressure from democracies.”

But the public support for Russia has been preceded by hints of private frustration in Beijing that Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in an increasingly tough position. China has said it is not taking sides in the war, even as it remains Russia’s main diplomatic and economic benefactor, and that tortuous stance has badly strained China’s ties with Europe.

That has led China to edge a little away from Russia by arranging a call between Mr. Xi and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and by proposing broad principles for a peace process that included condemning the use of nuclear weapons and calling for respect of sovereignty.

“I think you could start to see more of that hedging and signaling,” said John Culver, a former U.S. intelligence analyst on China.

The same mix of public support and private doubt is evident in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries have overlooked Russia’s war on Ukraine because they increasingly viewed Mr. Putin as an alternative source of security in a volatile region where the United States is viewed as pulling back.

Russia has played that role since 2015, when its military intervened in the Syrian civil war. Mr. Putin’s support for Syria’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad, was not lost on Arab leaders, who contrasted it with what they saw as President Barack Obama’s abandonment of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

A parade of gulf leaders has called Mr. Putin in recent days, from the emir of Qatar and the president of the United Arab Emirates, to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leader on Tuesday expressed support for the “steps made by Russia to defend the constitutional order,” according to the Kremlin.

That is a predictable reaction by a fellow autocrat, but it papers over tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The two countries had once worked together to keep oil prices as high as possible, but now Russia is aggressively selling oil at cut rates, even as Saudi Arabia tries to prop up the price.

“The bottom line is that they thought they could balance an unreliable United States with a more reliable Russia,” said Martin S. Indyk, the Lowy distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And now they face an even more unreliable and potentially unstable Russia.”

How Mr. Putin handles the aftermath of the rebellion will also have an effect on perceptions of his standing. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who spoke to Mr. Putin on Saturday as Wagner troops were still marching on Moscow, responded to an attempted coup in 2016 by carrying out widespread purges of dissidents.

Mr. Putin has so far held off on reprisals, though as Mr. McFaul pointed out, he has already effectively carried out an Erdogan-style crackdown in Russia, closing newspapers and jailing opponents like Alexei Navalny.

For some countries, like Israel, the calculations can be fiendishly complex. An American ally under pressure to back Ukraine, Israel has been loath to antagonize Mr. Putin because of Russia’s military presence in Syria. It depends on Russian acquiescence when Israel wants to strike Iranian-linked forces there.

But Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine has left it less focused on Syria, which analysts say has eased the anxieties of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about showing more support for Ukraine.

It was telling, said Mr. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, that on the weekend of the Wagner rebellion, reports emerged in Jerusalem that Mr. Netanyahu was contemplating a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

There was far less equivocation in Iran, which is tied to Russia by oil, weapons sales and a kindred sense of global isolation. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, spoke to Mr. Putin on Monday to offer “his full support,” according to a Kremlin readout of the call. Iran announced that its chief of police, Brig. Gen. Ahmadreza Radan, would travel to Moscow at the invitation of Russian officials to expand security cooperation, including fighting organized crime.

In some ways, a weakened Mr. Putin benefits Iran, Mr. Indyk said, because it makes him more dependent on the drones and missiles Tehran has been funneling to Russia. It also gives Iran a freer hand in Syria, where it has joined with Russia in propping up Mr. al-Assad.

Yet even in Tehran, there were scattered voices calling for a reassessment of the relationship in the wake of Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny.

“The Wagner story was a warning for Iran,” said Elahe Koolaee, a former lawmaker who is a Russia expert at the University of Tehran. “Instead of relying on the East, Iran needs to start working on strengthening its relations with the West.”

For some countries, like India, there are major economic consequences to recalibrating relations with Russia. Since the war in Ukraine began, India, which remains neutral in the conflict, has emerged as one of the largest buyers of Russian oil, benefiting from a price cap imposed on Russian oil exports by the United States and its allies.

During his recent state visit to Washington, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India showed little indication that he planned to abandon that policy. Diplomats said that President Biden, eager to draw India closer to the United States in its geopolitical rivalry with China, did not press Mr. Modi too much on Ukraine.

For some countries, the immediate question is not just whether Russia will be less reliable but also what kind of future the Wagner Group will have globally, given the exile of its boss, Mr. Prigozhin, in neighboring Belarus.

In Mali, for example, Wagner mercenaries have been in the fight against anti-government militants. With the departure of French and United Nations peacekeeping forces, these mercenaries have become critical to keeping the government in power. Malian officials have yet to comment on the crisis in Russia, underscoring their quandary.

Mali’s dependence on Russia became clear in February when it was one of only seven countries — among them Belarus and North Korea — that voted against a United Nations resolution demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine.

“There’s a real paradox for Putin,” said Mr. McFaul, who teaches at Stanford University. “Where Wagner has been extremely important is in allowing Russia to project influence around the world. If Putin doesn’t have that, his ability to look influential is diminished.”

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko in Tbilisi, Georgia, Chris Buckley in Taipei, Taiwan, David Pierson in Hong Kong, and Farnaz Fassihi in New York.


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