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Could Russia Somehow Get Rid of Putin?

Russian President Putin testing a new sniper rifle. Image Credit: Russian State Media.
Russian President Putin testing a new sniper rifle. Image Credit: Russian State Media.

Does Vladimir Putin have cancer or Parkinson’s disease? Who is next in line to the throne if he becomes incapacitated or dies? And could there be a coup d’état in Russia that would overthrow the modern-day tzar?

Putin has wielded his iron hand as either president or prime minister for so long that it is difficult to envision a scenario without him. He does not appear to have big enough enemies among the ruling class who would engineer a coup. The military’s leadership is already weakened and disorganized from difficulties in Ukraine. Most important, he has loyalists in the most powerful positions.

Who Is Going to Rebel Against Putin?

There is no group of young army officers that have a secret society plotting against Putin that we know of. Civilians fear even throwing a mild public protest movement against him. Demonstrators with blank signs are even arrested – that’s not exactly an armed rebellion among the populace. Media elites rarely complain and if they do, Putin has these media outlets banned or otherwise silenced. The Internet is limited except for those lucky enough to have virtual private networks. But VPNs are likely not being used to form a rebellion. Ordinary Russians without VPNs and Internet access who mostly watch television news do not get a full picture of the war in Ukraine. This group is more likely to support Putin and dislike any group that would organize a coup.

1991 Coup Failed

A coup would need a broad group of plotters among legislators, high-level bureaucrats, intelligence officers, and military leaders. The 1991 August coup had tough-minded Communists who wished to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev. Top military and civilian officials loyal to the Soviet regime banded together for that conspiracy. Intelligence agents made sure Gorbachev was watched during the coup, but they failed to keep Boris Yeltsin out of the way. Yeltsin led the anti-coup demonstrators to protest against the plotters. The coup fell apart in two days and his leadership during the tumult helped Yeltsin come to power. The Soviet Union disintegrated completely a few months later.

Maybe If Russia Quit Fighting the War

Kremlin insiders working with disaffected and formerly fired generals would be the most likely coalition to form a rebellion. A plot would be more likely to work if Russia officially lost the war by suing for peace. This type of surrender is not likely to happen soon. The public and legislators could lose confidence in Putin but that doesn’t mean they would band together in some sort of uprising.

When Coups Fail the Leadership Can Become Even Stronger 

A failed coup could make Putin even more powerful and public sympathy could side with those in the Kremlin who stayed loyal to the Russian leader. The 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed and resulted in an estimated arrest of 40,000 Turks. Erdogan used the coup as a reason to purge all of his political opponents.

A Coup Would Need a Troika of Plotters

Russia expert Amy Knight, writing in the Washington Post in April, said that a successful plot would need support from three key organizations — “the military, the FSB (successor to the KGB) and the National Guard (‘Rosgvardiya’).”

These Leaders Are Already Loyal to Putin

But one of the FSB’s main jobs is to watch out for the military to prevent any type of coup to arise in the first place. Knight wrote that FSB Chief Aleksandr Bortnikov is a Putin protégé, enabler, and loyalist who would be unlikely to plot or look the other way if he knew there was a conspiracy to fashion a coup. He would simply report the military plotters to Putin, and they would be arrested quickly and probably tortured in prison. The Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu is Putin’s right-hand man.

A conspiracy coming from the National Guard is also unlikely as guard chief Viktor Zolotov owes his career to Putin and is extremely loyal. Zolotov would be able to sniff out any plotters in his organization and arrest them if they were up to no good.

Therefore, a coup is unlikely, and the world will have to live with Putin for an indefinite period. Popular dissent is impossible. Military and National Guard leaders are loyal. The intelligence organs watch for any type of conspiracy against Putin.

As a result of these built-in protections against uprisings, Putin is likely to die in office. That’s the only way for regime change. 

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.