Russia’s Recent History Shows How Coups Fail—and Succeed
Without control of the media, military support, and international backing, seizures of power can flop.
As outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump attempts to cling onto power despite decisively losing the election, fears of a coup in the United States are growing. Russia has experienced two coups in the recent past. The first, in 1991, was a last-ditch attempt to stop the reforms that eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. The second, in 1993, saw the democratically elected President Boris Yeltsin use military force to stop an effort to impeach him and instead impose a super-presidential constitution on Russia—the same constitution that Russia still governed by today. Why one failed and the other succeeded may provide lessons on how the United States will hold up in the next few weeks.
Western readers may not be familiar with the outline of both events. The coup of 1991 began on Aug. 19 when eight senior ministers calling themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency seized power. The Committee, which came to be called the Gang of Eight, included some of the most powerful men in the country, including the vice president of the Soviet Union, the Minister of Defense, and the head of the KGB.
The Gang of Eight imprisoned then-USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev at his holiday home on the Black Sea and sent troops into Moscow and other major cities. Gorbachev refused pressure to force him to resign. In Moscow, the leaders of the Russian regional government, including the President Boris Yeltsin and Chairman of the Legislature Ruslan Khasbulatov, gathered the Russian legislature at the regional parliament building, commonly called the White House, and denounced the coup.
Despite efforts by the Gang of Eight to close all non-state broadcast networks, Echo Moscow, an independent radio station, remained on air and foreign journalists were able to broadcast relatively unfettered from the heart of Moscow. People in Moscow and across the Soviet Union gathered to protest against the coup. In Moscow, thousands surrounded the White House to protect the regional government. Most foreign governments, including those in Europe and Asia most vital to the Soviet economy, denounced the coup and began to impose sanctions.
Faced with strong opposition, the coup rapidly began to fall apart. The tank battalion outside the White House turned their guns to face away from the building and declared loyalty to the regional government. More troops followed suit, although there were violent clashes between troops and protestors in Moscow and other cities that resulted in under a dozen civilian deaths. By Aug. 22, facing the prospect of civil war if they pushed further, the Gang of Eight folded and troops were withdrawn from Moscow. The coup ultimately heralded the end of the USSR and, at the time, few would have thought troops would be back in Moscow a mere two years later and the White House would be in flames.
Two years later, now a democratic state, Russia still functioned under its Soviet constitution and efforts to establish a new one had stalled due to a disagreement between the legislature and President Yeltsin over the balance of power. The situation came to a head on Sep. 21, 1993, when Yeltsin issued a decree that dissolved the legislature and called for a referendum on a new constitution, one that gave the president strong powers, to be followed by the election of a new parliament. The legislature refused to be dissolved and impeached Yeltsin, installing Vice President Alexander Rutskoy as acting President.
Yeltsin refused to leave office and had the police surround the White House. Western governments, spooked by the very vocal presence of a minority of nationalist and hardline communist in parliament, largely supported Yeltsin. The situation stalled in a protracted siege during which many legislature members and several key factions deserted, complying with Yeltsin’s order to disband.
Ultimately, efforts to mediate a compromise failed and on Oct. 3-4, violence broke out as legislature supporters took the Moscow mayor’s office and tried (and failed) to seize the Ostankino Moscow’s main TV station. A gun battle developed between the army and pro-legislature militias, with 46 people killed. The military then moved in and bombarded the White House with tanks until the legislature surrendered. Ultimately between 150 and 500 people died in the fighting.
Within two years, Russia had thus experienced both a failed and a successful coup involving many of the same players and likely many of the same soldiers. That makes it an excellent comparative study for what causes a coup to work—or otherwise.
Firstly, a coup’s success depends on the loyalty of the military at both the command level and among common soldiers. In 1991, the defection of a few battalions ultimately led to whole divisions switching sides.
A sufficient legal pretext is also needed to give the coup an air of legitimacy. The nebulous state of Russia’s constitution in 1993 let Yeltsin get away with dissolving parliament, whereas the Gang of Eight were unable to provide a sufficient legal pretext to gain power by failing to force Gorbachev to resign.
On both sides of a coup, control of the narrative seems to be a key factor. This includes the ability to broadcast their message and rally popular support. In 1991, public opposition to the coup was widespread and independent media carried stark images of tanks on the streets of Moscow. In 1993, though crowds turned out to support parliament, they were initially only faced by police. As cameras began to focus on the neo-Nazi thugs and Russian ultra-nationalists that made up a section of the legislature supporters, Yeltsin was able to paint all his opponents as extremists.
The ability of the opposition to unify is also key. In 1991, Yeltsin and other regional leaders united strongly against the coup. In 1993, the legislature succeeded in impeaching Yeltsin, but it was not a unanimous decision and many factions began to desert the legislature almost immediately.
Finally, there is the ability to gain international recognition and support especially with nations that are crucial to the state’s economic interest. In 1991, the Gang of Eight had the support of a handful of communist states and nothing else. In 1993, most nations led by the US lined up behind Yeltsin allowing him to keep international recognition.
When it comes to the United States, there appears to be good news for now. There is the loyalty of the military to consider, where a would-be Trump coup appears to fall flat. The U.S. military has for the entire duration of its existence been apolitical, and service members swear to uphold the constitution. Thus, orders that clearly contradict or threaten the constitution are unlikely to be obeyed by the uniform ranks, even if civilian appointees within the Department of Defense support them. Trump has also repeatedly insulted and alienated the military, both over symbolic issues and by targeting his own generals for criticism.
Trump also lacks a sufficient legal pretext to hold onto power. Allegations of massive voter fraud by Trump and his supporters have failed in court, with even highly conservative judges noting that there is no merit to the allegations. Though some people worry about the strong conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely that a voter fraud case that has been dismissed due to lack of evidence will find its way there. Even then, the court cannot overturn an election. The constitution is unambiguous. Trump will cease being president on Jan. 20 at midday. This is not open for interpretation.
Trumps voter fraud allegations certainly are helping to create a narrative for his supporters, but it is hardly control of the narrative. Polling is mixed, but there is no majority, or even a significant plurality, for Trump’s ideas. One poll found that 79 percent of respondents believe Biden won, 13 percent believe it’s undecided, and just 3 percent believe in a Trump victory. The United States has no state news agency that can broadcast within the country, and even within news groups such as Fox normally heavily predisposed to Trump there is doubt over his allegations.
Certainly, the opposition to Trump is divided over ideological and policy lines, but an attempt by Trump to illegally hold onto power would serve as a unifying force. Massive protests would erupt in all major cities, as they did this summer over Black Lives Matter, and state governments would refuse to back Trump’s claims. Key Republican secretaries of state and governors are dismissing Trump’s claims.
It is also unlikely that, though Biden has not received acknowledgement of his victory from several governments especially those with strong personal ties to the Trump family or hostile to the United States, a Trump-led junta would gain international recognition. It seems highly unlikely a single allied democratic government would support Trump staying in office, especially if he did so through a coup.
Much like the Gang of Eight, Trump may have the desire to hold onto power and stave off the inevitable, but he is even less capable of doing so than they were in 1991. Trump still commands the military and federal government until Jan. 20, but he is unlikely to find more than a handful of professionals who would be willing to let him use extra-constitutional means to remain in office after his term expires.
It is still unclear what Trump will do in the days and weeks ahead, but his options are extremely limited. It is likely his obstinacy will make the incoming Biden administration job harder with a bumpy transition. Trump’s antics will also continue to galvanize his most deranged supporters and raise the risk of domestic terrorism in the years ahead. Ultimately, Trump cannot succeed in launching a coup because he lacks any of the necessary components to give it even a remote chance of success.
Jeff Hawn is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Department of International History. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.