The failure of the assumptions that led to the war in Ukraine has been cleaning up Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, with generals and spy service directors being ousted and jailed for treason. Also, several oligarchs distanced themselves from the leader and the war. But even with the number of his closest ones decreasing, the probability of the leader being the target of a coup d’etat, as so many advocates, remains small.
The Ukrainian military intelligence services said on March 20 that something is being prepared in Russia to depose Putin, but this information can only serve to discover possible conspirators.
The possibility of the president’s fall and the effects it would have on Russian society must, however, be admitted.
“Putin has become a symbol,” he told the Ukrainian newspaper Kyiv Independent to Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “As soon as people become disillusioned with the symbol, the whole system will collapse. The whole system is focused on him.”
“Among the economic and political elite, a group of influential people opposed to Vladimir Putin is emerging”, said Ukrainian informants quoted by the Kyiv Independent.
“Their aim is to overthrow Putin as quickly as possible and restore economic ties with the West that have been destroyed by the war.”
The leader of Russian intelligence services, Alexander Bortnikov, is pointed out by this group as a potential successor, the same sources add. Putin will be displeased with Bortnikov due to the poor quality of the information collected about Ukraine and the director of the FSB will want to avoid the fate of the all-powerful director of the 5th Service of the FSB, Colonel-General Sergei Beseda, accused of treason for the same reason.
Gennady Gudkov, a retired FSB colonel and former deputy who has become a stern critic of the president, is skeptical of these scenarios.
“It’s an illusion”, he reacted on March 24 to the microphones of the TV channel Current Time. “Any coup is prepared in a highly secretive environment. If it is real, it will be known after it happens”.
The FSB is moreover far from being a homogeneous service and even from being the only forces capable of discerning and collecting information, so their influence alone is limited.
The popular support factor
In this game of mirrors, it is possible to see if something is happening behind the scenes by analyzing the political and economic situation in the country. And the conclusion is that, if the regime’s propaganda and recent polls are to be believed, support for the president and the war in Ukraine seems to remain high in Russia.
Western-imposed sanctions are certainly slowly chipping away at the quality of life for Russians. The difficulties, however, are still not enough to generate popular discontent, especially among people who remember times of much more serious shortages than at least 30 years ago.
Many Russians also believe in the justice of war and the glorifying narrative of Vladimir Putin, conveyed by the presidency. Only the destruction of these convictions could turn public opinion.
Between February and March, polls by the Russian independent analysis agency Levada, the president’s approval rating jumped from 52 percent to 69 percent. And on April 4, another poll found that 65 percent of Russians feel pride, happiness, or euphoria over the war in Ukraine with 31 percent expressing negative feelings about the conflict.
Even if the truth is more balanced, those for whom war is unpopular are paralyzed by the panic of what might happen to them and their people in the event of a protest. The street demonstrations of the first few weeks fell silent after security forces arrested thousands and legislation was passed criminalizing speeches against the military and denouncing the conflict.
A high number of casualties or defections in Ukraine could unbalance popular support. “The longer the war lasts, the worse it will be for Putin,” says Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher now at Estonia’s Tartu University.
Russian analyst Oreshkin stresses that a defeat in Ukraine will sharpen Putin’s image as a strong man.
For Sazonov, an eventual action by the International Criminal Court against Putin for war crimes could encourage Russian elites to turn against the president. “They will be able to show him as the only culprit and themselves as saviors of the homeland”, he opined.
A scenario that many considered illusory.
The elite factor
Western punishments are effectively hitting the fortunes of the biggest and richest supporters of the Russian president in particular. Such pressure is already aggravating the elites’ resentment against the leader, but the fear of losing the most precious asset, life, probably speaks louder.
The possibility of such anger expressing itself in a coup d’état is remote, not least because those closest to the president do not remain in place out of folly.
The president is also the son of a coercive system with multiple mechanisms to prevent military coups or palace attempts to remove the leader. Putin knows better than anyone else how to control the device and has been aware of the risks since he took power in 1999.
Another important reason is the choice of an eventual substitute. Vladimir Putin dried up the possibilities around him, chasing opponents to prison and death. Reina, absolute lord, without heirs to profile.
His downfall, if any, is more likely to be due to the defection of the Russian elite than to a premeditated coup, most analysts believe.
And there are already cases. Anatoly Chubais, who has served in the Kremlin since Boris Yeltsin, resigned, packed his bags, and went into exile. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister and director of the International Chess Federation, criticized the war and resigned from the Skolkovo Foundation, a state-run technology development center.
The sudden disappearance of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu raised many eyebrows in a sign of the tension in the Kremlin.
The Defence Minister of the RF Serhiy Shoigu has disappeared from the public space since March 11. According to this, Russian media announced his disappearance. pic.twitter.com/GSXgSC9ht0
— KyivPost (@KyivPost) March 24, 2022
Oreshkin says that there is a clear division in the political elite. “The oligarchs have long been mulling over a coup,” Gudkov said for his part. Putin “is so toxic and dangerous that they would prefer a replacement. But they are afraid to talk about it because they would be killed.”
The real power, however, will not be in their hands as they play no role in effective power, objected Sergei Sazonov.
The defection of some may rather be a wake-up call for Putin.
Ukraine. Putin’s Nemesis?
“Authoritarian regimes seem to be very stable until, suddenly, they are not. And the Putin regime is likely to be no exception,” said Adam E.Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, recently.
The analyst recalled, for example, a case very close to Putin and the current war in Ukraine, which could be repeated in Russia.
Between February 19 and 20, 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ordered his security forces to fire live fire at protesters, killing around 70 people. “Instead of dominating the protests, the repression led to their intensification and the defection of key security services and top regime figures,” recalled Casey.
Shortly afterwards, the Security Services, SBU, announced that they would cease operations against the protesters and the forces guarding the Government abandoned their posts. Without any armed forces willing to quell the protests, Yanukovych fled and went into exile in Russia.
“If a coup succeeds, it will only happen if Putin becomes unpopular and there are massive protests,” Sazonov said.
Certainly, Putin observed and learned from the oligarch’s mistake, his neighbor and ally. Comparisons between both and the respective support systems are, however, merely superficial. The possibility exists of a fate similar to that of Yanukovych but its occurrence is unlikely.
the military factor
The Soviet regime controlled the country through an extensive network of Communist Party members, including officers in the Armed Forces and counterintelligence services and political commissars.
According to Adam E.Casey, these restrictions almost disappeared in the new Russian Federation.
Political commissioners have often been replaced by oligarchs who owe their influence and survival to the president.
Only the Information Services, the FSB, heirs of the former KGB, and the FSO, Federal Protective Services, whose main responsibility is to protect Putin and the Russian leadership, remain umbilically linked to the Kremlin. Members of these secret forces, loyal to Putin, are infiltrated throughout the Armed Forces as a control mechanism for the military, says Casey.
The prestige of the Armed Forces still survives to a certain extent at the expense of other times, but the military corps is more professionalized and tends to be apolitical. The case of the presidential candidacy presented last year by General and Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kartapolov, director of the main political-military department of the Russian Armed Forces, was considered unusual and he himself guaranteed that he would resign if he was elected to the Duma.
Vladimir Putin also won the gratitude of many neglected officers under Boris Yeltsin by promoting the technological modernization of military forces. There are also rumors that the smartest and most influential officers among the troops are removed, demoted, or worse if they do not show support and appreciation for governance.
The Russian Armed Forces are also infiltrated by mafias and the corruption network present from the base is responsible for the diversion of weapons and funding and undermines morale. There will even be cases of military bases robbed by gangs with complete impunity.
The very internal perception among the military is, moreover, that their mission is the defense of Russia, not crowd control and opposition in defense of a despot. A conviction that serves the Kremlin’s interests by distancing the military from power.
The power of secrets
Putin’s secret has been to diversify his sources of repression and information. Adam E.Casey recalls that in 2016 the president formed the National Guard, Rosgvardia, under the direction of one of his trusted men and former personal guard Viktor Zolotov.
Rosgvardia is a national security troop corps oriented towards crowd control and repression of dissidents. Its mission is the defense of the Kremlin and its leader, which also rules out the possibility of an armed coup.
As the third ring of protection, Putin also maintains a series of well-equipped security services with great intelligence-gathering capabilities, capable of aborting any embryonic coup among the military or in Rosgvardia.
The president also counts on the FSO, “vast and well-armed services with carefully selected infantry units to defend the Kremlin”, recalls Adam E.Casey. The result is that “all the secret agencies watch and control each other”, putting the possibility of trying to overthrow the lord of the Kremlin into perspective.
Gudkov confirmed that the war has great support among the FSB which makes a coup very risky. “Any suspicion of disloyalty or intrigue could lead to death,” he told the Kyiv Independent.
Vladimir Putin’s best cover, however, is himself and his personal control over elites.
“The president governs effectively without worrying about pleasing the Duma, the Parliament, or any other politburo in the party.” Each owes his position to the leader’s good graces, Casey recalls.
Balance consolidated over 20 years and that generates two vital consequences. The risks of failure of an eventual coup are extremely high and the conspirators risk at least imprisonment or exile, as well as the maximum penalty, execution.
“Even if everyone in Putin’s inner circle wanted to get rid of him, the consequences of a failure and the difficulties of coordinating a movement against him under the watchful eye of multiple intelligence services make any coup unlikely,” says Casey.
Packed in his power, Putin is untouchable and no one dares to go against him. “There is no member of his intimate circle capable of containing him”, says the American analyst.
The distance that Putin places between himself and those closest to him even in state meetings has been justified by the fear of contracting Covid-19. But you can go deeper than that.
It is therefore very likely that the Russian president will overcome the current crisis without losing a shred of his power, similar to what happened several times with dictators such as Libya’s Muammar al-Qadafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “who endured huge internal crises repeatedly.” without being overthrown by their elites or publics”, he concludes.
“Like his former ally Yanukovych, Putin may find that he is ultimately unable to order a sufficient crackdown on the part of his secret services to prevent the protests,” anticipates Casey.
Putin’s fall will probably be due to a tangle of factors, which leave him alone in the face of popular fury like the former president of Ukraine.
“Resignations can escalate in a domino of defections by key elites in your regime, anxious not to go down with the boat. While the costs of a layoff can be serious, they are likely to be much smaller compared to a failed coup. Even without the initiative to depose him, your security services may not be able to save him,” he says.
Source: with agencies