Would Vladimir Putin ever become so hated and unpopular for his leadership of the war in Ukraine that he would be overthrown in a coup? The conflict in Ukraine is at best a stalemate where Putin could say he is effectively protecting what he believes is Russian-owned land in the Donbas region and in Crimea. At worst, the war could be seen by many Russians as a blood bath with no end in sight and that this requires new political leadership to end it. However, that doesn’t mean plotters would attempt to remove Putin from power.
Potential Military Mutiny Over Use of WMDs
The possibility of civil unrest by members of the military or the intelligence sector dangerously planning an overthrow does warrant a discussion. One scenario could involve a mutiny by generals who would refuse to carry out orders if Putin wanted to use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
This could happen if his defense minister and top general decline to participate in the sequence of events necessary to launch a nuclear missile or explode a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield. Defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the military’s Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov need to issue a launch verification and enter authorization codes before a nuclear attack should commence. But Shoigu and Gerasimov are completely loyal to Putin and are not likely to refuse the order and then take part in a coup.
Another military scenario that would create instability would be if the Russian army refuses to fight and retreats back into Russia. This could create a situation in which the hawkish and nationalist generals and intelligence chiefs would be steaming mad and would want to replace Putin for his poor leadership.
If a military disaster did occur leading to what is seen by the defense chain of command as an embarrassing loss and a surrender in mass, Putin might abdicate and leave the country. So far, there is no sign that Russian forces are planning to retreat or lose in such a disastrous manner and Putin is not normally a quitter.
What About His Health Becoming So Bad Plotters Would Take Charge?
We have discussed the possibility of Putin’s ill health leading to a changing of the guard should he be incapacitated or if he died. This is not likely to happen as the Russian president is quite the fighter and has displayed an active and healthy lifestyle to this point judging from media reports of his manly activities in the outdoors or when he plays sports such as ice hockey.
Those In Power Are Just Too Loyal to Their Patron
Putin has been smart to surround himself with loyalists who he has known for decades. The three branches of power in the executive leadership structure: the military, the National Guard, and the intelligence organs are led by people who would never consider rising up to overthrow Putin.
Many who serve in Russia’s version of the legislative branch, the Duma, are filled with lawmakers who owe their position to Putin. They are not likely to mount any real opposition to Putin’s reign that would lead to a coup. However, at the beginning of the invasion, there was a small movement to pin the charges of “high treason” on Putin by city deputies from the Smolninskoye Municipal District. This was only a letter to the Duma and there was no action taken. But it does show that some local officials could become even more frustrated with the prosecution of the war and demand new political leadership at the top of the pyramid.
Russian expert Daniel Treisman from UCLA is not convinced any of these scenarios would come to pass. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Treisman explained that “discussion has focused on the possibility of a coup, whether an armed insurrection by disgruntled Russian generals or a mutiny by Kremlin insiders. Although not impossible, neither of these is currently very likely.”
While there are plenty of reports that Putin is unhealthy for various reasons including cancer and Parkinson’s disease, the Russian leader is still very much in charge. He has carefully surrounded himself with loyalists in all silos of power: the military, the intelligence services, the National Guard, and the Duma. These allies and friends dating back decades would never plot against him. Civil unrest has not appeared to bubble up in a dangerous manner that could lead Putin to be replaced. So, a coup is unlikely at this point. Putin is simply too smart and well-prepared to let it happen.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwoodis 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.