Rethinking of the Wagner’s crisis from a historical perspective

Although the Wagner crisis ended in less than 40 hours in Russia, the world was shocked and divided politically and intellectually. Various comments on the issue came out as usual and many of them are with a mixture of fascination, concerns and even horror as it was officially defined as a “munity” in Russia at the very beginning of the crisis. Meanwhile, a large number of liberal scholars in China or abroad are emotionally disappointed or despaired by the result with little bloodshed and without any major political figure and group backing Prigozhin and his-led mercenaries.

It is self-evident that the Western media in general and the Anglo-American clique in particular did not keep silence. They opined that there is a sign of weakness that might invite another similar attempt sooner or later. This time, all episodes present a “sign of weakness” in Russia and now likely is a “chink in his armor among the elites” as Samuel Charap described. Some scholars and more historians are also convinced that three “historical cases” in Russia/Soviet annals can verify the weakness of Putin and his administration.

Chronologically, the first case comes to be the Crimean war (1854) that has fascinated many historians to hold that the defeat of Russia was due to the Anglo-French allies representing a democratic system, better trained and advanced military as well as more skillful diplomacy. During the war, Russia not only lost its holy ally Austria but also exposed its incompetent domestic leadership and the awkward military performance. Yet, as a matter of fact, the war between the interested parties in 1854 was only nominally over the question of the religion freedom or the human right since the real reason behind the Crimean War was that of classical power politics. As British policy-makers admitted that despite its decrepit and inhuman, the Ottoman Empire which was the protégé of the Anglo-French allies had to be preserved even at the risk of war with Russia. What a familiar statement reiterated by the policy-making elites in Washington and London of today, as they have claimed “to support Ukraine as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression.” Like the genuine design of the NATO to Ukraine now, the Crimean war of 1854 was fought against Russia rather than for the sake of the Ottoman Empire, as A. J. P. Taylor said. It is worth noting that Taylor is a well-trained historian and his vision and empathy with geopolitics are far beyond the dull narrative of history.

Then came the second case of the collapse of imperial Russia in 1917. Russia was seen as a poor and backward power in Europe where other major powers had been dominant in the world affairs for the centuries. Due to various reasons, by the third year of the First World War, Russia was ripped apart by the domestic revolutions which led to the withdrawal from the war and the severe sanctions on the new Bolshevik regime from the Western powers in the wake of the war. Like Germany, Russia or more accurately then the Soviet Union was isolated from the allied bloc. However, it is controversial if Russia was defeated during the war even though the Russian army was not capable in the battles against the German army. Due to this, Russia has been much underestimated by the liberal scholars. But prior to the WWI in 1914, Russia had risen to the third among the six major powers of Europe in terms of manufacturing production. For example, in the critical years between 1885 and 1913, British industrial production increased at the annual rate of 2.1%, German at 4.5%, the American rate was 5.2% and the Russian 5.7%. (Taylor, 1954). Accordingly, Kissinger asserted that Russia had a seminal role in the European equilibrium, and will equally be essential to world order. (Kissinger, 1994)

Now we come to the third case of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991/2, which was pretentiously described by the United States as a “victory with no war.” During the 1990s, Joseph Nye came to realize that Russia alone still posed a challenge to the United States, largely because it was the one country with enough missiles and nuclear warheads to destroy the United States. The relative decline of Russia has never eclipsed its advantages such as the educated population, skilled scientists and engineers and vast natural resources. It is still debated on the reasons why the Soviet Union failed apart by the 1990s. Yet, most scholars in Asia have preferred holding the cliché that the liberal democracy prevails over the authoritarian regime. Given the poor GDP of Russia, it has not been opined as a global challenger to or cause a geopolitical problem for the United States unless Moscow decides to choose to cooperate with China or India in term of realpolitik. Now it asserts that both China and India are the privileged priorities on the foreign policy agenda in Moscow.

Based on the analysis of the Russian history, it is necessary to evaluate Russia’s geopolitical goals and overall national strength, both current and potential. In addition, history acts a guide but never be a repetition of the past. In Russia and some others in the West, “mercenaries can strengthen military effectiveness in a given time when deployed in place of a military force, but they can really weaken it when “co-deployed” alongside regular military forces. Co-deployment can work, but only if a clear and consistent command-and-control structure is put into place and everyone abides by it. President Putin and his elite team are aware of the issue, but the media and political commentaries in the West have tried to fabricate the weaknesses of Putin and Russia as well. In doing so, it might be easy for the West to verify the three cases of Russia’s failures as discussed previously.

As we knew, the crisis was swiftly resolved without internal fighting and no military breakthrough of Ukraine as well. As Russian scholar Igor Istomin has analyzed, the Special Military Operation has to be prolonged for years before its objectives can be fulfilled. Also during the crisis, the Russian leadership has proved that it is capable of staying the course. For example, all military and security services, all federal and regional elites pledged immediate and active support to the central authority headed by Putin. Thus, it heralds a new phase that Russia will be more coherent and stronger and its military will be much more proficient and morally higher than before.

Given this, as Russia’s friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China formally supports Russia to make all earnest efforts to maintain national stability and achieve development and prosperity. Similarly, as a well-established power of Europe in history and then of the world, Russia would be able to achieve what it has expected from the special military operation in Ukraine.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.