Thought Experiment: A Coup in Russia

It might surprise some readers to learn that Vladimir Putin has yet to officially declare his candidacy for next year’s presidential election. Why is anyone’s guess, and there’s a lot of guessing going on. Maybe this is just one method of making a rigged election seem like an exciting horse race. Maybe he is genuinely trying to find a way out of power. Maybe he just wants to set people on edge, worrying about the future, and then announce his candidacy with the implicit assurance that he will save Russia. To give you an idea of how uncertain things are at this point, I’ve actually seen speculation that the date of next year’s presidential election will be moved to the anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea (CORRECTION: I’ve recently been informed that this date has since been confirmed, and that it was chosen by Putin’s order. Totally normal democratic practice. -Jim). When you can’t even figure out the date of an upcoming presidential election, something is clearly wrong.

If Putin were to leave the presidency in 2018, there’s only one likely course of action from my point of view- he’d have to pull another “castling” move just as he did with Medvedev in 2008. There’s just one problem with that, however. Medvedev was chosen for his servility to Putin and his meekness, for lack of a better word. It was clear that Putin, then serving as the Prime Minister, was still largely in control. Putin later got spooked by various foreign and domestic issues and decided to come back to the presidency in 2012, this time for a six year term. While Medvedev has remained as Prime Minister, he is largely hated by everybody. For years now, he’s even what you could call an “authorized  target,” meaning that attacking him in public doesn’t garner the same response from authorities as attacking Putin does.

Medvedev had to be hated; if he were portrayed as being as good as Putin, it would imply that there are viable alternatives to Putin. Thus he played his role. Now with Navalny having used Medvedev as the catalyst for two massive country-wide protests, Putin knows he can’t swap positions with Medvedev again. Someone else will have to be found, but who? The person needs to be a certain character- Medvedev’s character was that of a liberal reformer, a Russian president for millennials who loved the latest gadgets and social media. The other component, of course, is being submissive to Putin. Medvedev was comical and awkward, and thus didn’t challenge Putin’s politically-savvy tough guy image. Who could fill that role? There are certainly people who, at least now, are extremely loyal to Putin, people like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, or perhaps Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The problem, however, is that these people most likely have too much dignity to serve as a fall guy character like Medvedev. And being president might theoretically open up certain options for them to throw off Putin’s yoke and take real power for themselves.

When discussing all of the above with a friend yesterday, the topic of a coup naturally came up. While Putin would no doubt maintain strong ties to his intelligence agencies as Prime Minister, the titular Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, which would theoretically give the acting president a potential base of support. The question is, how likely is a coup in Russia?

The obvious answer is “not very.” Russia doesn’t do coups well. The last time this was attempted was in 1991, and it failed for a number of textbook reasons (if Edward Luttwak is your textbook author). First, the coup-plotters lacked legitimacy, as they were Soviet authorities in a union that was at that point almost in-name only. Russia had already declared its sovereignty, and had its own president, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin managed to mobilize the populace; coups tend to work when the populace stays neutral.

Another aspect of Russia that makes it a poor place for coups is its size. There are major cities spread out over vast differences. The military is now both modern but also still very large, meaning there would be a lot of airfields to seize, rail junction to block, and military or security service units to isolate or neutralize.

Another factor is the size and nature of its state security apparatus. At the top levels they are part of Russia’s ruling class. True, Putin rules at this ruling class’ behest, but removing him would require collective action, and would-be organizers of a palace coup are most likely already being watched. Any grumbling members of the elite could probably be isolated and arrested individually before they can form any sort of faction to move against Putin.

Lastly, as much as Putin’s state media apparatus tries to depoliticize the Russian populace, Russians are not, in fact totally passive TV-controlled zombies with no interest in politics. While foreign media tends to focus on big, anti-systemic opposition protests like those of Navalny, there are far more frequent, more widespread protests that go on throughout Russia’s regions, and they have been increasing in recent years. The focus of these protests is typically economic, usually related to wage arrears. Coups are best pulled off in territories where the populace is more or less totally disenfranchised, when the names of those in power makes no difference from their point of view. This is why a lot of successful coups tended to happen in former colonial territories or otherwise extremely undeveloped countries. Coup plotters do not want crowds in the street- the transition should be quick and legitimacy established as a fait accompli as soon as humanly possible.

The cursory analysis shows that Russia gets a red X for almost every question on the “Is Your Country Going to Have A Coup d’Etat?” quiz in Cosmopolitan. But could there be a black swan event? If so, Putin’s potential castling would probably be the most likely catalyst, for the reason already mentioned above. What follows is strictly hypothetical speculation, a kind of thought experiment to consider what it would it take for a successful Russian coup.

First of all a foreign-sponsored coup is out of the question. This would require foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate into the highest circles of power in the Kremlin. It would also require all kinds of communication that would inevitably lead to slip-ups at some point. Someone’s phone would be tapped, someone would meet with a suspicious foreigner. Also, working with foreign intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, would be seen as treason by the coup plotters. It’s important to realize that while these people see nothing wrong with robbing their country’s natural wealth to live lavish lifestyles full of Western luxury while their population sinks further into poverty, working with a Western government to overthrow their own government would indeed be seen as treason in their mind. It’s really hard to argue otherwise.

The coup would have to be the personal vision of the man Putin chooses to switch places with. For the sake of argument let’s say that man is Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov’s obviously intelligent and worldly enough to realize that Putin’s system, and in particular his foreign policy, is simply not sustainable. If this were a deeply held conviction, and if he had shared this conviction in full confidence with the right people, there is one slight chance that a coup could work, assuming he could rely on people from the military, preferably Russia’s special operations forces.

Apart from secrecy, there is one key thing the coup plotters would have to do to have any chance of success- kill Vladimir Putin. Don’t pull off the coup when he’s abroad. Don’t hold him as a bargaining chip. As long as Putin is alive and kicking, there’s a chance to restore the status quo, a legitimate claimant to put back on the throne. If the coup plotters just eliminate him, loyalist forces will be deprived of a leader with legitimacy, and thus they’ll have a hard time proving their own legitimacy. Of course the coup plotters, if they were smart, might not publicize what they did to Putin.

They might do well to spread the story that Putin is seriously ill or died of natural causes, or perhaps he was killed by a made-up coup attempt. Thus loyalist forces may not appear as such to the population, and they would have a hard time establishing their own legitimacy. Meanwhile the plotters would communicate the truth to Russia’s top military and security service leaders. “He’s dead- your move.”

A second factor would be that the coup plotters must control key ministries and locations in the center of Moscow. The sooner they could get police and national guard (Rosguard) forces on their side the better. Entrenched in Moscow, with airfields under control, the coup plotters could pose another challenge to anyone who might come to restore the status quo. “Do you really want to turn this city of over 12 million people into Stalingrad?”

The coup’s only chance is to basically present loyalists with those two challenges in hopes that any potential loyalist leader would consider continued resistance too costly and come to the negotiating table. There are certainly enticing reasons to accept the new status quo- without Putin as the anchor, the state wealth can be redivided. Obviously Putin’s personal friends, who have benefited so much from their patron, will not like this- the coup plotters will have to deal with them too. Foreign policy decisions that led to sanctions on certain individuals could be reversed. The motives will be personal greed, but personal greed goes a long way in Russia. Stability is also very appealing to Russia’s ruling class, and nothing’s more destabilizing than civil war. Coming to the negotiating table to preserve stability could be portrayed as a patriotic act- we must form a new government before the evil West takes advantage of this unfortunate situation!

It seems difficult that absent of Putin, some other figure, a regional governor or general perhaps, could step in to lead a popular opposition to the coup. I think this is largely the fault of Putin’s media machine, which has spent so much time creating the image of Putin as an irreplaceable leader. The best leader for a counter-coup would probably be some individual who’s barely ever on TV, and thus it would be difficult for him to garner popular support. And popular support for what? Didn’t the TV announce last night that Putin died from a heart attack? Who is this upstart anyway?

While this might seem plausible at least, it’s important to remember how unlikely this is just because such a coup would probably never get beyond the early planning phase. Successful coups are carried out by small groups of people, but you still require the cooperation of larger numbers, particularly military personnel. In a small “banana republic” you might need only some battalion commanders in order to get one regiment to take over the presidential palace and perhaps an airport. In Russia you’d need more. While it’s the officers and not the enlisted men you need to turn, you’d still need dozens, maybe even a few hundred in the Moscow area, and the intelligence services are watching. The more powerful your position, the more you are being watched.

Another reason this is so unlikely is because even in the thought experiment above, it actually requires Putin’s unwitting cooperation. He would have to decide to try to castle again, and just happen to put into power someone who nurtures a strong hatred toward him, someone who might have his own silent following among the Kremlin circles of power. That’s a long shot.

Thus the idea of a successful coup in Russia really can’t be much more than a thought experiment like this one. Interesting to wargame, but not something you want to bet money on. Such speculation is natural for a dictatorial regime whose system randomly changes as necessary to keep one man in power, a man who is said to be irreplaceable. Of course the unlikely scenario discussed here is a successful coup, and perhaps there are people in Russia’s circles of power that never read Luttwak, and maybe aren’t very rational, analytical types. While Russia is a bad place for successful coups, there’s no reason why it can’t have a failed coup, as we saw in 1991. So the real scary question is what happens in the aftermath of an unsuccessful coup in Russia? That could get ugly.

8 thoughts on “Thought Experiment: A Coup in Russia

  1. AndyT

    Also, more importantly, would something change anyway?

    Let’s suppose for a moment such a scenario could really take place – a clique somewhat manages to overthrow Putin and take over Moscow, most of the Armed Forces somehow accept it, and the populace either follows suit or at least isn’t able to support a counter-coup.

    But then?

    OK, Putin and some of his cronies either flee the Country or are sent to jail/put to death; the new regime stops the former govt’s escapades in Syria and Ukraine and seeks to make up with the West.

    Sanctions are lifted and the economic situation improves, some form of loose anti-corruption law is passed to appease the common citizens…

    In practice, they would come back to a 2006-like situation – definitely better than the present one, but far from a further evolution.

    The new rulers would behave more or less like their predecessors, civil movements and free press would still be restricted, Kadyrov would probably catch the opportunity to bully the new élite into granting him even more money, or even use Putin’s fall as an excuse to build his breakaway kingdom in the Caucasus – and other parts of the Federation could follow his example.

    That’s the difference from an élite coup and a bottom-up fight for change, I think.

  2. Mike Freyrie

    I wonder how much the economic situation could play into this. Granted that the difficulties you mentioned would still apply, the current economic structure of the major companies isn’t sustainable in the long run – since a major premium is put on their ‘social function’ than long term sustainability, it’s imaginable that state finances could come under even greater pressure, and with it the main source of theft and corruption. Do you think the Kremlin’s allies could see their private profits threatened by economic reforms?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This coup scenario is very unlikely, but what is far more likely to happen is something like what you describe, after many years of stagnation. The ruling elite in Putin’s Russia has taken many hits personally. In some ways it’s been beneficial because the state has supposedly been bailing them out. It’s never nice to lose assets, but a guaranteed insurance payout isn’t bad either. So far they seem to be either content or cowed, probably buying into the idea that this will all just blow over in a few years.

      But it’s still possible to take a very long time for the elite to move against Putin. It may require him to be incapacitated in some way, so enough of his security service thugs become agreeable to the idea that he has to be replaced.

      Like I said that could take a long time. Look how bad Venezuela or Assadist Syria have become, and their governments are still functioning to some degree. Of course Putin won’t have some major power bailing him out as those countries do, but Russia’s got plenty of wealth, resources, weapons, and loyal bodies to rely on.

      The only way you’re going to see a collapse of Russia in the near future is if some kind of freak event happens to Putin, like a heart attack or stroke from some kind of genetic condition (he’s apparently very healthy otherwise), or slipping in the shower or something. The breakdown will not come immediately, but rather when the coterie of thieves around him start moving against one another to divvy up the pie.

      One of the biggest problems with Putin is that his regime is based on bullshit, it has no pool of trained replacements like the CPSU. Communist propaganda naturally glorified their top leaders, but generally they weren’t billed as irreplaceable, like Putin. Other sorts of dictatorships also plan a successor. But the basis of Putin’s regime is still “If not Putin, then who?” and he’s made no moves that suggest he’s chosen a successor.

      1. gbd_crwx

        “Apart from secrecy, there is one key thing the coup plotters would have to do to have any chance of success- kill Vladimir Putin.” So no Chrustjefian solution with him retiring? Could he even retire, if he wanted to?

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        If he really retires, and loses control of the security apparatus, there’s always the chance that he could be betrayed by his successor and prosecuted. As things get worse in Russia, he’s the perfect scapegoat for an incoming regime.

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