The term “coup d’état” – literally meaning a “stroke of state” – was first coined in the 19th century, but it existed in concept for centuries. It is essentially the overthrow, or otherwise seizure and removal of a government from power. It typically is carried out by rival political factions, rebel groups, or military leaders.
Eons of Coups
The earliest recorded coup is believed to be in the Kingdom of Israel in 876 BCE when a military commander named Zimri overthrew King Elah. It didn’t work out all that well for Zimri, as he soon committed suicide to avoid being overthrown by another commander.
Roman general Julius Caesar illegally assumed control of Rome, becoming “dictator in perpetuity.” He ruled with success for about five years until he was assassinated on the Ides of March by the Roman Senate. Caesar was just one of hundreds of leaders to be brought down in a coup through the ages. Roman emperors would come and go through such efforts, while the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Boris Yeltsin, and Hosni Mubarak all were involved in various coups or coup attempts.
A name that could be added to the list is Vladimir Putin.
The New Stalin – Not Quite
Had his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine gone as planned, Putin would still have faced sanctions from the West, but he would have solidified his position as the new Stalin – a man of steel hell-bent on restoring the Soviet Union. Fortunately for the people of Ukraine, things didn’t work out for him.
It could also be Putin’s undoing.
In January, Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speechwriter turned political commentator, told CNN that it is likely Putin will face a coup within the next year.
“The Russian economy is deteriorating,” Gallyamov said. “The war is lost. There are more and more dead bodies returning to Russia, so Russians will be coming across more difficulties and they’ll be trying to find explanation why this is happening, looking around to the political process and they’ll be answering themselves: ‘Well, this is because our country is governed by an old tyrant, an old dictator.'”
Russia’s next presidential election is scheduled for next year, and if Putin can even remain in office until that point, he may be forced to cancel it. Among his military chiefs, Putin is already looking like a “second-rate dictator.”
Who Could Do the Coup?
It is impossible to know who might currently be plotting behind the scenes – because if there were such indications, those individuals would already be in a gulag or more likely dead with their entire families. Dictators and despots don’t allow such opposition to have any chance of taking root.
Putin clearly sees the writing on the wall. The question is whether he can stop it.
There has already been speculation that Putin’s longtime ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group mercenary unit, could seek to overthrow the Russian leader. Even as the men have reportedly enjoyed a close relationship for years, there has been a rift between Prigozhin and the Kremlin over the supply of weapons and ordnance.
The Wagner Group has been playing a critical role in the attack on the city of Bakhmut, and just this past weekend, the Kremlin pledged to provide the necessary support to the mercenaries. As the supplies haven’t come, Prigozhin has spoken out against the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Coup plotters need support from others, including well-placed military leaders, within the police, intelligence services, and other branches of government. This is why such events rarely happen as much as they once did. In the Roman era, as well as in Imperial China over the eons, a general with a loyal force could attempt a coup but today there are increasingly variables.
This is why modern coups typically fail.
Prigozhin could be the rare type of individual who can put the pieces in place. He already has a private army, and with some connections in the Kremlin, he could ensure that Putin’s toadies are removed quickly should he attempt to seize power.
Of course, whoever may opt to remove/replace Putin only gets one shot. That is why no one has dared try – at least yet.
As the HBO series served to remind us: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
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Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.