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Is Russia Ripe for a Coup?

Russia's Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) summit at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 16, 2022. Sputnik/Sergei Guneev/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo

Is a coup possible in Russia? Several months ago, most analysts would have dismissed the idea as absurd. Today, with the war in Ukraine going badly for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, the question is relevant. It might even be urgent. 

Indeed, that question has been supplemented by another: Can a leader who has created such an immense catastrophe for his regime and his country possibly survive?

Informing Our Speculation

Speculation about a possible coup is just that – speculation. Since there is no direct evidence that anyone in Moscow is plotting a coup, the best one can do, as Bellingcat’s Russia specialist Christo Grozev says, is draw conclusions from existing conditions in Russia, and hope they prove to be right.

Russia’s list of ills is long. The country is currently experiencing almost complete political isolation, impending economic collapse, growing material hardship and dissatisfaction, and a looming military defeat. It is also witnessing the galvanization of NATO, which will likely add new members, and the strengthening of the U.S. alliance with Europe. 

All of this is happening thanks to Putin, who has succeeded in reducing his country to an underdeveloped third-world state with nukes. It stands to reason that some Russian political and military elites must hope to replace the man who created this mess. That is how angry elites have reacted in other countries with comparable circumstances.

It is also how they have reacted in Russia’s past.

In 1991, Communist hardliners unhappy with perestroika tried, and failed, to remove its architect Mikhail Gorbachev from office. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev’s comrades pushed him out. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks successfully seized power from the Provisional Government in Petrograd. A few months before that, General Lavr Kornilov failed to oust the government.

Will angry elites repeat history and stage a coup against Putin?

A partial answer to that question can be found in Edward Luttwak’s excellent 1968 book, Coup d’Etat. A Practical Handbook.

Guidelines for Coup Plotters

The book defines a coup as “the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.”

The author then identifies three pre-conditions of a coup, all of which manifestly hold for Putin’s Russia. First, the social and economic conditions of the target country must be such as to confine political participation to a small fraction of the population. Second, the target state must be substantially independent, and the influence of foreign powers in its internal political life must be relatively limited. Finally, the target state must have a political center.

When these conditions are present, as they are in Russia, coups are possible. For a coup to happen, however, its plotters must also control or neutralize the state bureaucracy and its security forces, “while at the same time using [the machinery of state] to impose … control on the country at large.”

Since “the many separate operations of the coup must be carried out almost simultaneously,” Luttwak notes that a large group of people with the requisite training and equipment must be involved. “There will usually be one source of such recruits: the armed forces of the state itself,” by which Luttwak means the army, police, and security services.

The initial group of coup plotters will then have to recruit supporters. They will preferably be able to draw insiders who are alienated from the government and with whom they are friends. Links of family, ethnicity, or clan can be useful, the author specifies.

Planning and timing are key to successful coups. “Information is the greatest asset” of coup plotters. The plotters must know a lot about the defenses of the state, while the state knows little or nothing about the plot. Neutralizing the state’s counter-intelligence services is thus a priority. Leading representatives of a country’s political forces and its government must be arrested. Roads, airports, and communications will have to be controlled to prevent outside forces rushing to the aid of the embattled government. Key buildings must be occupied. 

The final step, according to Luttwak, is the “forcible isolation of the ‘hard-core’ loyalist forces.” Once a “satisfactory degree of penetration” of the armed forces and police is achieved, it is time to launch the coup. If one acts too soon or too late, the window of opportunity will close, and the coup will fail.

A Recent History of Russian Coups

The 1991 coup plotters failed miserably. They did not arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, seize the parliamentary building, neutralize loyalist armed forces, or take control of communications. 

In contrast, Khrushchev’s opponents made sure to have the support of the Communist Party apparatus, the army, and the KGB, and they succeeded. 

Likewise, the Bolsheviks meticulously planned their coup in Petrograd by seizing communications centers and key roads, controlling the railroads and the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and penetrating the government’s armed forces. Their attempted coup in Moscow did not succeed, however. They failed to neutralize military forces and instead provoked an armed conflict that they won after a few weeks. 

General Kornilov bungled his attempted coup even worse than the 1991 conspirators. He simply marched in Petrograd, without securing any support from the significant political players or social forces.

The fact that Russia has experienced four coup attempts since 1917 does not mean that a coup against Putin will necessarily happen, but it does remind us that coups are not unusual in that country. Importantly, a precedent may have already been set: The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence claims that an assassination attempt took place soon after the war began.

A Coup Is Possible

Were Russia’s potential coup plotters to read Luttwak, they would take courage. All three pre-conditions of a coup are present in Russia. There is clear evidence that elements within the military and the intelligence services are dissatisfied with the course of the war against Ukraine, and with Putin’s handling of that war. There is also mounting evidence of soldiers refusing to fight and of Russian men refusing to register with military commissariats. 

The military is distracted with the war in Ukraine, while the secret service and counterintelligence are focused on suppressing popular discontent and countering the threat posed by Ukrainian special forces and guerrilla saboteurs.

Since so much power is concentrated in Putin’s hands, removing him is tantamount to seizing the government. (One analyst has suggested that, given Putin’s isolation in a bunker, neutralizing him simply means cutting him off completely from the outside world.) Loyalist political forces in the Duma and the United Russia party are too cowed to stage a pro-Putin rally, while loyalist forces in the provinces are too far away from Moscow to matter immediately.

Coup plotters would have to be disgruntled generals and FSB officers bound by friendship, an esprit de corps, and fear of Russia’s destruction as a result of the war. There is no reason that such individuals could not find a common language and recruit supporters from within their ranks. There is also no reason they could not mobilize important elements of the armed forces and security services based in Moscow. 

Putin’s diehard loyalists would obviously put up a fight, as would some elements of Moscow’s population. But given the collapsing economy, the steady count of body bags returning to Russia, the military humiliation in Ukraine, and Russia’s absence of a free press and civil society, pro-coup forces should be able to quell that resistance and win control of the Kremlin.

Naturally, a coup could also fail, for any number of reasons discussed by Luttwak. One false step, one poorly timed move, and the whole endeavor could collapse.

But Russian history and political-science theory do suggest that a coup is perfectly possible. Going by Luttwak’s guidelines, all of the elements for a successful coup are already present in Russia. All that is missing is a core of plotters to assemble the pieces. (It may not be missing at all. According to Ukrainian intelligence, a coup is already being prepared in Moscow.) Perhaps most important, since the plotters would be acting explicitly against Putin and his policies, there is a good chance that they would be motivated to repudiate the mess created by the regime. That would be the best news for everybody.

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

Written By

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Eric-ji

    May 24, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    Let’s hope it ends soon and peacefully. All of it: that Russia somehow becomes content to live within its current borders, quits worrying, and becomes a peaceful and productive member of the family of nations; that Ukraine’s sovereignty, and that of other beleaguered nations, is restored and honored; that the US, China and Europe stay vigilant yet non-threatening; that peace comes to the Mideast finally.

    Kumbaya.

  2. Doug Hasler

    May 24, 2022 at 8:08 pm

    A coup to remove Putin from power has been discussed for months. Though it is unclear what the character of a regime that would replace Putin would be, it seems unlikely that it could be worse.

    I have been unconvinced about one aspect of a coup — how to coordinate the necessary elements between political, security, and military actors. Russia strikes me as being a security state. Watching the videos of Putin holding court with his security and political advisors . . . it struck me that all of Putin’s subordinates were either scared s—less to say anything other than what Putin wanted to hear, or were well practiced “Yes”-men/women.

    If someone has concluded that Putin has to go, who would you trust to bring into the plot? One word to the wrong person, and it would be a bullet to the back of the head faster than you could say “Molotov”. Putin, as a creature of the KGB himself, is more able than any other world leader to sniff out disloyalty among his political/security/military toadies (and to deal with it harshly).

    Niall Ferguson, the Scottish-American historian, has written that Putin is likely to die in the same fashion as most (certainly not all) Russian/Soviet leaders — of natural causes. I am inclined to agree with Ferguson on this one.

  3. from Russia with love

    May 25, 2022 at 3:38 am

    great article! standard of Ukrainian nonsense 🙂
    all pro-Western “outraged elites” fled to the west. they will organize a coup? like Juan Guaido and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya? ha ha ha 🙂
    after the start of the special operation, Putin’s trust rating in Russia was about 80%. By the way, in Western countries, leaders cannot grasp such a level of trust in power. the energy crisis is intensifying and the food crisis is looming. in the west, not in Russia. In Russia, everything is fine with this. gasoline prices are falling. in April it was 45 rubles, now it’s 41 rubles per liter 😉

    • Doug Hasler

      May 25, 2022 at 12:03 pm

      “Trust”, in a political leader, of 80% is unheard of in the West, or in any free society. It exists only where political opposition (such as Navalny) is systematically marginalized (or worse), where free media is not allowed to publish opinions which question or criticize state actions or actors, and where the people know that participating in a peaceful protest will land them in prison.

      But it is good to know that everything is fine in Russia.

      • from Russia with love

        May 27, 2022 at 3:08 am

        First, look at your country. Can a media funded by Russia or China operate in your country? no. Can a politician in your country receive money from Russia or China and carry out political activities? no. why did you decide that it is possible in other countries? Have you completely lost your mind?
        peaceful protests? you have 5 people killed after the elections, in Russia no one died during those miserable actions that were organized by your agents. just think, representatives of the diplomatic mission of your country were directly involved in organizing protests in Russia! what happened to you if a representative of the Russian embassy personally came to cheer the rallies after the elections?

        • Greg

          May 28, 2022 at 5:04 am

          When Russians were interviewd in Moscow streets and asked if they felt guilty about the outrageous R ussian terrorist army invading Ukraine mostly they said no about 95 percent , they say this while smiling this to me me is a blatant disregard for poor Ukraines who are being murdered daily. If these interviewees are aware of the truth about Russian army’s behaviour in Ukraine which includes murdering babies, kiddies targeting hospitals,materialises, civilian buildings, innocent Ukraine people,raping girls and boys and women, assassinating Ukraine citizens by shooting them in the back like the Russian COWARDS THEY ARE AND SCUM OF THE UNIVERSE REPULIVE FILTH THESE RUSSIAN BARBARIAN BASTARDS ARE THEN WHY DON’T ORDINARY RUSSIANS FEEL GUILY THEY SUPPORT PUTIN IN THE MAJORITY SO THE RUSSIAN CITIZENS ARE PURE FILTHY STINKING SCUM SS WELL AS THE RUSSIAN TERRORIST STATES MILITARY. THEY WONT BE SMILING AND NOT GIVING A FUCK IF A NATO V RUSSIA Wr OCCURS THEY WILL BE CRYING WHEN RUSSIA IS THREATENED AND MOSCOS FLATTENED

          • from Russia with love

            May 29, 2022 at 4:29 am

            it’s probably hard to find a more illustrative example of how stupid Ukrainian propaganda is, we’re talking about what you wrote.

    • knut olav Nordbø

      June 19, 2022 at 9:03 am

      Det vil være en fordel for menneske lidelser på kort sikt men på lengre sikt vil dette være en katastrofe for Vesten med USA i spissen.

      Russland kunne gjort dette med hevet hode å spise noen kameler å komme sterke tilbake senere for de har lært masse hvordan vesten tenker å gjør

  4. Keevan Morgan

    May 25, 2022 at 7:44 am

    The premise of this article, which is that the war in Unkraine “is going badly” for Russia.

    That hypothesis is hardly yet proved correct and will have to percolate for some time before the answer is apparent.

    • Bertram

      May 25, 2022 at 2:24 pm

      Glad to hear the war is going swimmingly for Russia. So many nasty reports of humiliation, failure, and general incompetence among the Russian attackers that its reassuring that Russians believe everything is right on plan.

      We recall that most passengers of the Titanic thought there was no danger either, and declined to get in the lifeboats that were departing half empty, until they started to see the water coming up the deck towards them. By then it was far too late.

      Keep reviewing and analysing the situation. The Ukrainians will keep killing Russians in the meantime while you wait.

      • from Russia with love

        May 27, 2022 at 3:37 am

        Great parallel to the Titanic! Bravo! Have you thought that this Titanic could be the EU and the USA? 😉

  5. Fluffy Dog

    May 25, 2022 at 9:13 am

    A coup may happen, but the monolithic nature of the Russian ruling groups makes it a moot question. The new President will blame it all on Putin, make some changes in foreign policy, and continue with the same ideology and the same eventual goals.
    The opposition, which would try to make changes, has no chance of getting power in Russia. And even if they did, we now have a generation that was brought up on Putin’s propaganda, and they are the ones who will be taking governing and teaching positions for the next 20 years.

  6. RedKnightsOH5

    May 25, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    America had a Coup…… in 2020. The second coup America has had!

    TRUMP 2024

  7. Tired

    May 25, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    No, and it’s not even close.

    Even if it were possible, there’s absolutely no reason to expect someone better to take over. Look at all of the countries that we were responsible for changes in leaders, either from military action or diplomatic pressure:
    Iraq: worse off than with Sadam
    Libya: worse off without Qadaffi
    Egypt: after we pressured Mubarak to cede power to a democratic process, their army had to pull a coup against the Muslim brotherhood.
    Pakistan: maybe the best case scenario. If you overlook Butto getting killed in a car bomb, we wound up with only a slightly less reliable ally after we pressured Musharraf to abandon his military dictatorship.
    Omar: after we drove the mad mullah out, we got sucked into a 20 year war, with nothing to show for it.
    Ukraine: after we helped oust the last legit regime, they ended up with Zelensky and are now fighting Russia after we repeatedly and flagrantly violated the NATO Russia founding treaty.
    Iran: the current group of psychos overthrew the last CIA- emplaced shah and kidnapped some of our people for over 400 days.

    I’m sure I’m missing quite a few examples.

    Whenever we’re involved in regime change one way or another, we never end up with a better result.

  8. Begemot

    May 25, 2022 at 3:18 pm

    A lot of wishful thinking going on here. There will be no coup. The drivers of events in Ukraine are not limited to the desires of one man.

  9. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 25, 2022 at 9:38 pm

    They might try, but the tanks would probably break down before they ever got into place to surround the Kremlin.

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