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A coup against Putin: Wishful thinking or a real possibility?

April 5, 2022 11:54 pmby Oleg Sukhov
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Russian dictator Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on April 1, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian intelligence has claimed that a coup is being prepared against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

Although such intelligence claims may be dubious, analysts can assess the possibility of a coup d’etat by taking into account the economic and political situation in Russia.

Some of them argue that a coup is highly unlikely, while others say it is almost inevitable due to Putin’s decision to unleash unprecedented aggression against Ukraine.

Support is still high in Russia for Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, and the Western sanctions have not yet destroyed the Russian economy. There are not many people capable of overthrowing Putin or wishing to do it in his inner circle, and a coup is extremely risky.

However, the likelihood of a coup may increase if the war against Ukraine becomes unpopular in Russia and if the Kremlin suffers major defeats in Ukraine. Further deterioration in the economic situation may also contribute to this scenario.

“Putin has become a symbol,” Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent. “As soon as people are disappointed with the symbol, the whole system will collapse. The whole system is focused on him.”

Military intelligence

Ukraine’s military intelligence said on March 20 that a coup is being organized in Russia.

“In the Russian economic and political elite, a group of influential people opposed to Vladimir Putin is emerging,” the intelligence said. “Their aim is to overthrow Putin as soon as possible and restore the economic ties with the West that were destroyed as a result of the war against Ukraine.”

The military intelligence claimed that part of the Russian elite is considering Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), as a potential successor for Putin. The dictator has been unhappy with Bortnikov due to the FSB providing him with incorrect information about Ukraine that led to military failures, according to the intelligence.

Gennady Gudkov, a retired FSB colonel and ex-lawmaker who has become a harsh critic of Putin, is skeptical about this data.

“This is wishful thinking,” Gudkov told the Current Time TV channel on March 24. “Any coup is prepared in a highly secretive environment. If it’s real, people find out about it post factum.”

Oligarchs' dissent

A major precondition for a coup is a split in the political elite.

The sanctions imposed on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine and its growing isolation from the outside world have already caused discontent in part of the Russian establishment.

Anatoly Chubais, a political heavyweight who had served Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin for decades, resigned from the position of an aide to Putin and left Russia.

Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister and head of the International Chess Federation, has criticized the war against Ukraine and resigned as the head of the Skolkovo Foundation, a state-funded high-tech center.

Russian oligarchs, who had always toed the Kremlin line or remained silent on political issues, have also spoken out against the war.

Tycoons Mikhail Fridman, Alexei Mordashov and Vladimir Lisin have called the war a tragedy and called for peace. Aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska has called the war “madness” that would shame generations to come.

Russian political analysts Oreshkin and Georgy Satarov said that the oligarchs’ statements indicate a clear split in the political elite.

“(Oligarchs) have thought about a coup for a long time,” Gudkov said. “He (Putin) is so toxic and dangerous that they would prefer a replacement. But they are afraid to speak about it because they would be killed.”

However, Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia’s Tartu University, countered that oligarchs do not play any role in Putin’s political system, in contrast with top intelligence and law enforcement officials.

Support for aggression

Another major factor that will determine Putin’s future is popular support.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and virulent state propaganda on Kremlin-controlled television appear to have boosted support for Putin similarly to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The number of those who think Russia is moving in the right direction increased from 52% in February to 69% in March, according to a survey by Russian independent polling agency Levada. Putin’s approval rating rose from 71% in February to 83% in March, the poll showed.

According to a separate April 4 Levada poll, 65% of the Russian respondents feel pride, happiness or euphoria due to the war against Ukraine, and 31% have negative feelings about it.

Oreshkin believes that this poll reflects genuine trends. But Satarov told the Kyiv Independent that even independent opinion polls in dictatorships do not reflect the reality because respondents back Putin out of conformism rather than sincere belief.

Putin’s approval rating may drop as soon as more people become aware of Russian soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine and as the economic situation further deteriorates, Oreshkin said.

“The longer the war continues, the worse it is (for Putin),” he added.

Potential defeats in Ukraine may be especially painful for his dictatorship since Putin’s image of a strongman will be damaged, Oreshkin said.

Satarov argued that the prosecution of Russia’s war crimes at the International Criminal Court may encourage the Russian elite to overthrow Putin.

“They will present Putin as the main culprit and portray themselves as saviors of the country,” he said.

One commonly cited parallel is World War I: in 1914, the support for it in the Russian Empire was immense but by 1917 frustration with the war was so high that it led to the overthrow of the monarchy.

Are protests possible?

Oreshkin argued that large-scale protests as a result of the war and the economic crisis are possible. However, protests alone are unlikely to bring Putin down, he said.

He cited the example of the major 2020 protests in Belarus and Russia’s Khabarovsk Krai, which failed because there was no split in the elite.

But Oreshkin said that protests may contribute to Putin’s overthrow by emboldening potential conspirators and making a coup more feasible.

“If a coup does happen, it will happen only if Putin becomes unpopular and there are major protests,” Sazonov said.

Is a coup unlikely?

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has often been compared with the launch of World War II by Adolf Hitler. About 40 unsuccessful assassination plots were organized against Hitler, with the most famous one by German army officer Claus von Stauffenberg in 1944.

However, some analysts doubt that a Stauffenberg exists in Russia.

Sergei Pugachyov, a banker and ex-associate of Putin who has fallen out with him, said on April 1 that Putin’s inner circle supports the aggression against Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Gudkov said that the war has a lot of support within the FSB, and a coup would be extremely risky.

“Any suspicion about disloyalty or intrigue may lead to death,” he said.

Sazonov also believes that a coup is unlikely. The political system remains internally stable, and the economy has so far suffered less than expected, he said.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has prompted the population’s consolidation around the Kremlin, and many people blame economic and other problems on the West rather than on Putin, Sazonov said.

He also argued that the political system encourages the appointment of incompetent and loyal people - ones who are unlikely to organize a coup.

“The whole political system has been built in order to prevent a coup,” Sazonov said.

The Russian army, in contrast with Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht, is incapable of organizing a coup d’etat, he said. Both the Soviet and Russian authorities have avoided appointing independent, ambitious and competent people to the military due to the fear that the army could overthrow the government, Sazonov argued.

If a coup happens, it is more likely to be organized by officials of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is relatively more competent and independent than other agencies, he said.

Any conspiracy must also include employees of the Federal Protection Service (FSO) because they protect Putin, and it is the only way to get close to him, according to Sazonov.

Mobilization

Since defeat in Ukraine may have a devastating effect on Putin’s power, there is speculation that he will resort to mass mobilization to increase the invasion force and boost Russia’s war effort. However, he has not yet done so more than a month after the invasion began.

Sazonov argued that Putin may be afraid of mobilization because it is difficult to organize logistics for a much larger Russian army. He may be also afraid of provoking a political disaster, with a majority of conscripts trying to evade the draft, Sazonov added.

Putin is reluctant to begin mobilization because people will be disappointed with their relatives’ deaths in Ukraine, Oreshkin said.

“Mobilization is like pension reform - it concerns everyone,” he said. “It would be bizarre if Putin resorted to mobilization for something he calls a special operation. It would mean he has admitted his failure in Ukraine. It would be his last resort.”

North Korea scenario

Putin may preserve his power if he manages to switch to a North Korea-style totalitarian regime where all negative information is blocked, Oreshkin said.

There are signs that the shift to a North Korean scenario has already begun.

The Kremlin has shut down or blocked most of the remaining independent media and introduced prison terms of up to 15 years for spreading information on the war at odds with the government’s official line.

“He will need a Great Terror to preserve his power,” Oreshkin added. ‘If there is a defeat in Ukraine, Putin will need to purge the elite.”

There is evidence that Putin has already started a minor purge.

Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov and Russian human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin said in March, citing their sources, that Sergei Beseda, head of the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) fifth department, and his deputy Anatoly Bolyukh had been placed under house arrest. They have allegedly been investigated for embezzling funds allocated for sabotage operations in Ukraine and for providing false information about the political situation in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Roman Gavrilov, a deputy head of Russia’s National Guard, resigned in March.

Osechkin and Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev cited their sources saying that Gavrilov had been investigated in a case into leaks of information on Russian troop movements in Ukraine and failed Russian military operations. The National Guard has taken part in the war against Ukraine and suffered heavy casualties.

Oreshkin said, however, that this is not yet the beginning of a Great Terror but an attempt to find scapegoats.

Putin is trying to punish those who he thinks are responsible for the failure in Ukraine, he said.

Oleg Sukhov
Author: Oleg Sukhov

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.

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