The other week I was having drinks with a friend, and he asked: why doesn’t one of the Kremlin’s insiders (known in Russia as the Siloviki, or “men of strength”) just “do in” Vladimir Putin?
It’s a fair question. Some Kremlin elites are believed to view the invasion of Ukraine as a strategic disaster and fear that it threatens the regime’s survival (as well as their ill-gotten wealth). It would make sense for someone near to Putin to force him out of office or even to shuffle off this mortal coil. A recent defector claimed that Putin has descended into even deeper paranoia, suggesting that he too fears this possibility.
Some observers in the international relations and security field have all but taken bets on how long Putin will last. POLITICO has released a ranking of potential successors. On the surface the answers seem easy, but studying the question reveals important aspects about our misconceptions, how much the current conflict threatens the regime, and how coups d’état have traditionally worked in Russia. It also forces us to think about the fallout and likely trajectories if it occurred. This leads to the further question: is this outcome desirable? Answering these questions enables us to better anticipate what may occur in a post-Putin Kremlin.
Our view of someone “doing in” Putin largely rests on misconceptions of politics and power struggles in Putin’s Russia. The long list of poisonings and mysterious deaths have coloured our view of how things work in the Kremlin (the high number of people who have fallen to their deaths has given rise to macabre jokes about Russia’s epidemic of “window cancer”). But while these instances are headline grabbing, it doesn’t mean that this is the go-to option in Russian political power struggles. Most Kremlin insiders who have died mysteriously are more likely victims of private business vendettas rather than systematic elite-sanctioned campaigns. More often they are side-lined into irrelevance and occasionally the law weaponised to financially destroy them and/or imprison them.
Likewise, the idea of Russia’s military overthrowing Putin is based on popular perceptions of coups as military-led based on the actions of 20th century military strongmen. But this ignores Russia’s historical record. An overview of Russia’s history demonstrates that they traditionally play a supporting role to political initiatives. But evidence suggest that the Siloviki are divided into those fully supportive of the conflict, those that disapprove but accept there is no turning back, and those who would like to stop it but have been cowed into submission. None are likely to act, so the military lacks political initiators to follow.
Some suggest that the Kremlin’s international isolation and economic sanctions will create enough public discontent to encourage the Siloviki to sideline Putin to save the regime. But while the sanctions will contribute to Russia’s long-term decline, there is little evidence to suggest it poses a direct threat to the regime’s ability to maintain its repressive apparatus. Consequently, although living standards will decline, the regime and its stakeholders can remain secure.
Anne Applebaum calls this the “Maduro Model” (after Venezuela’s present dictator), but North Korea and Iran are the original practitioners. All can be examples for the Kremlin. Both Pyongyang and Tehran have been under economic pressures for far longer than the Kremlin, but remain secure and prominent regional and international players. Labels like “a bigger, badder North Korea” and “Orthodox Iran” are already being used by analysts to describe Russia.
Even if a section of Siloviki did conspire to remove Putin, they would face a hydra-headed security apparatus that even insiders would struggle to combat. The FSB oversees counterintelligence and national domestic security and is directly embedded into the military. The National Guard (or Rosgvardia) was deliberately formed to counter domestic dissent and avoid reliance on the military. Then there is the FSO, responsible for Personal Protection. It guards the Kremlin and plays a duplicate role monitoring the military, which has its own intelligence organ, the GRU. All of them also watch each other. This fragmentation of the security services prevents any one organisation becoming a threat. It also creates a climate of distrust and ample opportunity to be discovered. It is Putin’s version of checks and balances.
These are major obstacles to Putin’s removal. But even if they could be overcome, there are three reasons not to want him forcibly removed.
The first and most obvious is the fallout within Russia leading to destabilisation. This is not to say that Russia will utterly collapse, but commentators have already drawn parallels to the 1990s, when Russia became consumed by gang wars, ethnic strife, and gangster capitalism. A repeat of this raises risks of the proliferation of weapons and nuclear material as well as creating an environment where Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs) can thrive. The so-called Islamic State’s franchise in Afghanistan has already been targeting Muslims in Russia’s peripheral republics with propaganda, calling for them to take advantage of the Kremlin’s isolation and rise up.
The second is the same calculation that allegedly prevented the Allies pursuing plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler: he was making such critical strategic mistakes that they were concerned that removing him might improve Nazi Germany’s odds of winning or prolonging the war. The same logic can be applied to Putin. Early accounts of the Ukraine conflict suggest he has micromanaged his “special military operation”, despite a lack of military experience. He has also fostered infighting among decision-makers to preserve his own power. He has prevaricated over decisions that would help the war effort but significantly damage his popularity, such as a general mobilisation. Igor Girkin (a former militia leader turned prominent nationalist blogger) has even mockingly labelled Putin Russia’s “unique strategic advantage”. So Putin remaining in place can be viewed as advantageous — if unpleasant.
Some would argue that Russia’s position as a nuclear power changes this calculation. But despite Putin’s threats, he continues to show restraint in physical nuclear posturing. This suggests he’s aware that the costs far outweigh the benefits and so he maintains a degree of rationality. If anything, his removal might increase the likelihood of nuclear conflict, because of the resulting instability. Especially if he is replaced by someone more radical or someone who feels the need to project strength and resolve.
This highlights the third and final reason for scepticism about a coup: the challenge we face is not Putin but his wider system. All positions of substantial power are filled by those who have a vested interest in preserving the current system and in some cases have identified anti-westernism as the best way to shore up their positions. It is therefore likely that any successor to Putin would follow similar policies.
It could potentially be even worse if one of the new generation took over, as they are products of a system that has fostered corruption, anti-westernism and conspiracy. When the old guard KGB and their associates backed Putin’s rise to power, they had assumed that as a former KGB figure himself, Putin held their values. But they had fundamentally underestimated how Putin and his “St Petersburg Gang” held a different ethos. They were a new breed who perceived the destruction of Russia’s geopolitical importance as the result of a “paralysis of power”, caused by the same men who were now assisting their rise. Consequently, they showed no loyalty to their patrons. Likewise, the West assumed that Putin’s rejection of the old guard meant he was invested in the new international system, leading them to disregard the old root causes of tensions with the Kremlin. The same mistakes could reoccur in the event of Putin’s removal.
One of the biggest issues with exploring these problems is that the Kremlin is broadcasting them, presumably to discourage the idea of comprehensively defeating Russia in Ukraine and in doing so “humiliating” Putin. But just because our adversaries exploit our concerns doesn’t mean we should disregard them entirely. Putin’s removal from office is not a panacea for current Western-Russian relations. This requires a bottom-up approach, empowering dissident voices and bridging information divides between the West and the Russian populace to enhance mutual understanding.
Two methods explored so far have been the “Call Russia” project and the planting of news stories within online games by the Finns. Such programs should be expanded upon, as should the message. As much as informing Russians of the actual events in Ukraine, it is worth reminding them what they have lost. Far from the respected master of its own destiny, Russia has become a diminished international pariah, subservient to the Chinese Communist Party. The memory of the Soviet victory over Nazism has been hijacked as a state-cult. Even Russian art, music, and literature have become tainted by the Kremlin’s weaponisation of cultural exchanges for influence-building. These are centres of gravity for Russian pride that will appeal across the political spectrum and can only be reclaimed by Russians themselves.
Above all, the Western public and policy makers should prepare themselves for a long-term campaign rather than hoping for a short-cut solution.
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