Putin Has Coup-Proofed His Regime

Russian security forces are carefully policed for loyalty.

By , a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in front of a Russian flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in front of a Russian flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea in Moscow on March 18. Alexander Vilf/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has not been going according to plan. Russian forces are demoralized and bogged down. Resorting to ever more brutal targeting of civilians, the Russian war against Ukraine was hardly the blitzkrieg decapitation of the government Putin had apparently anticipated, perhaps due to overly optimistic assessments by the narrow coterie of advisors on whom he relies.

This war of choice apparently took much of the Russian elite by surprise, which has led to some arguing Putin ought to fear a coup. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham went so far as to advocate a coup. It’s certainly true that some of the grievances that have motivated coups in other countries are present in Russia: battlefield setbacks, low morale, corruption hampering military logistics, economic catastrophe, apparent purges of the security services, and considerable personal harm to the fortunes of wealthy Russian elites. And with fresh wartime horrors every day and no obvious route to peace, it’s tempting to imagine a swift, decisive end via Putin’s removal.

But this might be as mistaken as Putin’s own hopes of a decapitation strike in Ukraine were. Putin, the product of a ruthless security system himself, has been preparing for the risks posed by a palace or military coup since he came into power in 1999. The Russian coercive apparatus has multiple mechanisms to prevent a coup. If Putin is to fall from power, it is likely to come from elite defection rather than a premeditated coup.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has not been going according to plan. Russian forces are demoralized and bogged down. Resorting to ever more brutal targeting of civilians, the Russian war against Ukraine was hardly the blitzkrieg decapitation of the government Putin had apparently anticipated, perhaps due to overly optimistic assessments by the narrow coterie of advisors on whom he relies.

This war of choice apparently took much of the Russian elite by surprise, which has led to some arguing Putin ought to fear a coup. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham went so far as to advocate a coup. It’s certainly true that some of the grievances that have motivated coups in other countries are present in Russia: battlefield setbacks, low morale, corruption hampering military logistics, economic catastrophe, apparent purges of the security services, and considerable personal harm to the fortunes of wealthy Russian elites. And with fresh wartime horrors every day and no obvious route to peace, it’s tempting to imagine a swift, decisive end via Putin’s removal.

But this might be as mistaken as Putin’s own hopes of a decapitation strike in Ukraine were. Putin, the product of a ruthless security system himself, has been preparing for the risks posed by a palace or military coup since he came into power in 1999. The Russian coercive apparatus has multiple mechanisms to prevent a coup. If Putin is to fall from power, it is likely to come from elite defection rather than a premeditated coup.

The Soviet system had essentially three major mechanisms to prevent a coup: party membership for officers, political commissars, and military counterintelligence. Only one of those three mechanisms remains in contemporary Russia.

The Russian military is a professional force. Unlike in some autocracies, Putin’s family members do not run sensitive military commands. Promotions are at least theoretically meritocratic. Unlike during the Soviet period, Russian officers are not generally party members. The Russian military, like others in the post-Soviet region, has been notably politically passive. It was considered highly abnormal when Gen. Andrei Kartapolov announced he would run for office on the ruling United Russia ticket last year, and he quickly resigned his commission.

While the organization responsible for managing the political commissars does still technically exist in Russia (the Main Military-Political Administration) it does not function in the same way as in Soviet times. Though strengthened in 2018, it was not a full revival of the Soviet system. One officer noted that it’s unlikely anyone in the Russian military “wants to revive an analogue of the Communist Party.” Gone is the extensive web of commissars reporting to the ruling party.

Yet there is one major element of the Soviet system of civil-military relations still present in Russia, and that is the presence of a network of military counterintelligence agents posted in the armed forces. That’s key to Putin’s control. Shortly after Putin came to power, the Federal Security Service (FSB) strengthened the extensive military counterintelligence presence of its KGB predecessor. Counterintelligence officers in the FSB are embedded directly in the Russian military to monitor the armed forces. When Putin ran the FSB, he referred to the counterintelligence department as a “mini-FSB.”

But for decades Putin has also cultivated an environment where the Russian military has few incentives to launch a coup. After neglect and decline under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s military has been pleased with the resources it has received to fund a large-scale modernization. While this brought Putin support before the war, the conflict has demonstrated the toll the corruption in this modernization process has wrought on the effectiveness of the military.

Putin has also removed the military from any potential role in domestic repression. Research shows that in general the regular military strongly dislikes being tasked with domestic crowd control and carrying out violent crackdowns on opposition. Militaries see themselves as defenders of the nation, not the gendarme of a despot.

In 2016, Putin authorized the creation of the National Guard, or Rosgvardia. Rosgvardia consolidates the internal security troops into a large organization oriented toward crowd control and quashing internal dissent. Its leader, Viktor Zolotov, is a notorious Putin loyalist and his former bodyguard. Rosgvardia’s role in preventing coups is less direct than providing forces to fight a military coup, though that is indeed possible. Instead, it does so indirectly: By removing any cause for using the regular military for domestic repression, it reduces the incentives for the Russian military to attempt a coup. Dictators from Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez learned the dangers of calling on the military to repress mass protests.

If all of this weren’t enough, Putin’s regime also maintains a series of well-armed security services with formidable intelligence collection capacities outside the regular army and Rosgvardia. Were they to attempt a coup, the plot might be discovered and resisted from these agencies.

In Putin’s Russia, the agency with the primary responsibility for protecting Putin and other top leadership is the Federal Protective Service (FSO). The FSO is the successor to the Ninth Directorate of the KGB. It also plays an intelligence role, which duplicates some of the functions of other agencies, and plays a role in monitoring the military alongside FSB military counterintelligence. The FSO is large and well armed, with carefully screened infantry units guarding the Kremlin. In addition to the FSO, Russia has the primary successor to the KGB, the FSB. The FSB is a large agency with a sweeping mandate that extends well beyond its military counterintelligence duties and is led by a longtime Putin loyalist.

In addition to these strategies to prevent a military coup, Putin has successfully personalized control over his fellow ruling elites to prevent a palace coup. He is not constrained by a party politburo or the Duma. Individuals owe their positions to remaining in his good graces. Surrounded by sycophants who distrust one another and owe their positions to his personal favor, Putin knows there are few elites in Russia capable of moving against him. Meanwhile, some have suggested his own security services could remove him. While that is of course possible, it is relatively rare in comparative perspective. It is made less likely in Russia by the fragmentation of the security services. No single intelligence agency dominates all others, and they all duplicate and monitor one another.

The costs of a failed coup against Putin would be potentially enormous. Failed plotters generally face jail, exile, or execution. Even if everyone in Putin’s inner circle wished to get rid of him, the consequences of failed action and the difficulties of coordinating a move against him under the watchful gaze of multiple security services render any coup unlikely.

Over the past two decades, Putin has consolidated a considerable amount of personal power. There are no members of his inner circle capable of restraining him. It is therefore possible that, like other personalist dictators, Putin weathers this crisis without losing power. It is worth remembering that personalist dictators like Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein weathered enormous and repeated domestic crises without being overthrown by their fellow elites or publics.

As is so often the case, the war abroad has brought a crackdown at home. Russians have been bravely protesting in large numbers despite an incredibly repressive environment to mass protest. But for mass protests to bring down a regime, security forces need to either side with the protesters and remove the dictator (as in Bolivia in 2019) or remain on the sidelines (as in Tunisia in 2011) and passively support the collapse of the government.

What might an end to Putin’s regime look like? He may not have to look too far afield to find a likely scenario. In fact, the answers could lie in the ouster of a dictator central to the current crisis: Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. On February 19-20, 2014, Yanukovych ordered his security forces to fire live ammunition on protesters, killing around 70 people. Rather than quelling the protests, however, the repression led to their intensification and the defection of key security services and top figures in the regime. Shortly thereafter, the SBU security service announced it would cease operations against protesters, and the forces guarding the government left their posts. With no security forces remaining willing to repress, Yanukovych fled into exile in Russia.

Authoritarian regimes appear to be very stable until suddenly they are not. Putin’s regime is not likely to be an exception. While a coup may be unlikely, it is of course not impossible. The odds are certainly higher than at any other point in Putin’s reign. Yet Putin’s greatest risk comes not from a coup but from elite defection. Like his old ally Yanukovych, Putin may find that he cannot effectively order sufficient security service repression to stave off protests. Resignations may increase into a cascade of defections by key elites in his regime anxious to not sink with the ship. While the costs of resigning could be serious, they likely pale in comparison to the risks of a failed coup. While they might not oust him themselves, his security services may not save him.

Adam E. Casey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Twitter: @adam_e_casey

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