Could Putin Lose Power?

For the past several months, I have been talking to experts about a possible coup in Russia. I approached the question gingerly. It seemed too much to hope for; it seemed naïve. Vladimir Putin had been in power for more than two decades. Many had predicted his demise—always prematurely. There was a small cottage industry on Twitter of people insisting that Putin was ill. They liked to post photos of him sitting at meetings, clutching his desk as if he were about to fall. I didn’t want to be like that. “Is this ridiculous to even think about?” I would ask the experts. The experts laughed. They felt the same way. A coup was unlikely, they agreed. A popular uprising—a “Ceaușescu scenario,” in which the people stormed the Party’s headquarters, convened a hasty trial, and murdered their dictator—probably even less so. To a scenario like the one that actually played out last weekend—one of Putin’s warlords raising a mutiny, taking over one of the country’s military headquarters, and marching on Moscow, all while Putin was still in power—we gave very little consideration. It just seemed too outlandish to talk about.

And yet, since the war began, all of the experts had been thinking about ways in which the Putin regime might collapse, and watching what Putin was doing to protect himself. Peter Clement, a former director of Russia analysis at the C.I.A., noted a televised meeting, days before the war, in which Putin browbeat members of his security council into pledging their support for his Ukraine policy. It was a brilliant move by Putin, Clement thought, to bring his senior administration officials in line. “They’re all complicit now,” Clement said. “It’s not like one of them can say, ‘I thought this was a stupid idea.’ They all signed on.”

For that reason, Clement thought it more likely that a move against Putin would come from the second circle, from someone less in the public eye, someone we’d not heard of. Clement was willing to speculate with me, but he considered the chances low. You’d have to have the security services on board, he said, because you’d need to physically arrest the President, and it was unlikely you could appeal to security hawks with an antiwar agenda. And you’d have to be prepared to run the country. It’s a big country and in the thick of a long war. “It can’t just be, ‘We got rid of the Wicked Witch of the West! Let’s all stand up and cheer!’,” Clement said. You’d have to have a plan, and Clement was having trouble thinking of people who might have one.

Another former C.I.A. analyst, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who was a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia between 2015 and 2018 and now runs the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank, walked me through the political-science literature on how authoritarian regimes tend to fall. Of the four hundred and seventy-three authoritarian regimes that had fallen between 1950 and 2012, a hundred and fifty-three had done so via coup. But the coup was on the wane; after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had stopped propping up quite so many military dictatorships, which are what tend to get militarily couped. It was unlikely, Kendall-Taylor explained, that the security services, or anyone from Putin’s inner circle, would move against the Russian President, because the regime had entered the stage that the political scientist Milan W. Svolik called “established autocracy.” In an established autocracy, the leader has monopolized power to such an extent that he can no longer be threatened by what Svolik calls an “allies’ rebellion.” The truth is, Kendall-Taylor said, most personalist dictatorships, such as Putin’s, ended with the dictator dying in power, especially when the dictator was older than sixty-five (Putin is seventy). “That is by far the most likely scenario,” she told me. She put the chance of regime change in Russia in the next two years at ten per cent, and that “ten per cent includes Putin having a heart attack.”

The historian Vladislav Zubok, who is the author of a recent book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, described the various ways in which other Russian and Soviet leaders—Nicholas II, Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev—had been ousted, and explained why none of those scenarios mapped onto this one. Nicholas II had abdicated, in 1917, after large protests in Petrograd (current-day St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital) shattered confidence in his regime, and the military joined the mutiny; Putin, Zubok pointed out, had made sure that his capital, Moscow, was well-provisioned and maximally isolated from the war in Ukraine; there is a loyal paramilitary force to control protests. Khrushchev was overthrown, in 1964, by a plot from within his own inner circle, led by his deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, who worked within the structures of the Communist Party to urge others to turn against their leader. The K.G.B. played a key role in the coup. Putin’s regime, by contrast, is highly informal, much more like Stalin’s, with all paths leading, in the end, to Putin. It is hard, under such circumstances, to plan a coup. And there are several branches of secret police, each competing with the others, making any plotting very complicated. As for Gorbachev, the comparison seemed the least apt of all. He had not only allowed his rival, Boris Yeltsin, to run for President of Russia—he permitted the government to finance his campaign. Putin was unlikely to do something like that. If there was a leader to whom Putin could be compared, Zubok said, it was Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia in the second half of the sixteenth century. Ivan fought a long war of attrition with his Western neighbors; he demoralized his ruling élite, and murdered his own son and heir. After his reign was over, the country eventually fell into civil war, the period known in Russian history as the Smuta, the Time of Troubles.

Two experts on Russian public opinion described their understanding of Russian attitudes toward the war in Ukraine, and what might cause those attitudes to change. Oleg Zhuravlev, a founding member of the Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent Russian research collective, summarized a series of in-depth interviews that his team had done with young Russians in the past year. They had found that support for the war was both thinner and narrower than it looked. There was a small group, about ten to fifteen per cent, of genuine supporters; there was a similarly small group of genuine opponents. In between was a large group of people, most of whom had come around to supporting the war not because they thought it was a good idea but because they didn’t know how to oppose it, and because they felt totally alienated from the people in charge of it. “Over and over we heard the same thing,” Zhuravlev said. “ ‘If there’s one thing I know about politics, it’s that I don’t know anything about politics. The people in the Kremlin are foreign to me; they are not like me. But they must have their reasons.’ ”

It was depoliticization in its purest form. Zhuravlev’s occasional collaborator, the longtime polling expert Elena Koneva, had spent the year and a half since the war began running a project called ExtremeScan, through which she designed polls to figure out the basis for Russian public support of the war and what could cause it to contract. She had seen signs, mostly in the border regions of Russia, that, when the war began to truly affect people’s lives, their opinions started to change. First they experienced fear of retribution—“We have done so many horrible things to Ukraine,” one respondent said, “that the Ukrainian Army will inevitably come here”—but the actual experience of war, of shortages, of shelling, of people being forced to evacuate, began to erode support for the war. And Koneva predicted that, if things got worse, support would erode further. “If people are constantly having to sit in bomb shelters, and women are giving birth without medicine,” she said, “then an end to the war will become their most passionate wish.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin figured in our conversations as a grotesque and somewhat comic character. When looking at the Putin regime, one Moscow-based historian said, “We’re all wondering who the Beria figure is going to be,” referring to one of Stalin’s most efficient henchmen, tried and executed by his former comrades after Stalin’s death. “Who are they going to take out and shoot right away? And then you look at the criminal types who are working for the Kremlin—and you see Prigozhin. There’s your Beria.”

For Kendall-Taylor, speaking in May, Prigozhin’s antics—his profane insults and increasingly aggressive rants, which included accusations of treason against the Russian Army’s leadership—were a sign of élite discord. In a post-Putin world, she said, the presence of warlords like Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, could lead to a “Sudan scenario,” in which these forces would start a civil war. In the near term, though, with Putin still in power, she did not think Prigozhin would undertake an actual rebellion. At the time, his criticisms of the military seemed only symbolically significant, a sign that the élite was in disarray and that protest actions, whether secessionist or antiwar, might not be met with as much force as people had once thought.

Regime stability is a funny thing. One day it’s there; the next day, poof—it’s gone. The Moscow-based historian, who asked that his name not be used since he was still in Russia, recalled what it was like to observe the Politburo in the early nineteen-eighties. “They looked like a totally homogeneous mass,” he said. “There was no indication, in their public statements or in anything else, that any of these people thought differently from one another.” But Gorbachev, it turned out, did think differently. In the years to come, he undertook a series of reforms that ended with the Soviet Union ceasing to exist. Authoritarian regimes could seem very stable, until suddenly they weren’t.

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kendall-Taylor convened a group of experts to compile a “stability tracker” for the Putin regime. The tracker identifies ten “pillars,” ranging from “Absence of an alternative to Putin” to the idea, among Russian citizens, of “Russia as a besieged fortress,” and tries to indicate whether these are growing stronger or weaker. As of this spring, several factors were going in the wrong direction for Putin: his élite was becoming fragmented; his economy was suffering the effects of the war and of sanctions; and his military, historically apolitical, was being pulled into the political arena by concerns over Prigozhin’s rising influence and its access to military resources. But the factors going in the other direction were more numerous: according to Kendall-Taylor’s experts, Putin had strengthened his control over the information environment; the people most discontented with his rule were leaving the country; and the idea of Russia as a besieged fortress was gaining rather than losing adherents. Most important, there remained no viable alternative to Putin: his warlords were politically unpopular, and his heroic opponent, Alexey Navalny, was being denied food, sleep, and medical care in a Russian prison. In the absence of an alternative, the status quo would continue.

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