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What are the chances of a "palace coup" in Moscow?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Dr Rod Thornton

Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department

02 March 2022

Is Vladimir Putin safe in his position as President of Russia? It seems obvious that the invasion is not going to plan; but can this lead to his removal?

In just one example of a plan that is going definitively awry, the accidental release (and then removal) on Saturday of an article on the RIA Novosti website claiming Russian ‘victory’ – and that ‘Ukraine has returned to Russia’ – showed the war should have been done and dusted by then. It patently isn’t.

As time passes, of course, pressure on Putin will build. There are already street demonstrations against the war across Russia. Opinion polls, prior to the invasion, showed that there was a groundswell of opposition in Russia to any major action against Ukraine. And now Russian military casualties are increasing. The Ministry of Defence refuses itself to give out casualty figures, but across Russia local administrations – to the annoyance of the Kremlin – are announcing the deaths of servicemen from their regions. Disquiet is certainly mounting.

In such a situation, what then of a "palace coup" to topple Putin? The military, of course, might not be the obvious instigator. It has become Putin’s favourite over recent years. A leader who once looked to his ex-KGB (now FSB) colleagues for his power base, now seems to have switched allegiance to the military. A massive funding drive since 2008 (and the Georgian war) seems to have largely bought their support. They should thus be fully behind Putin’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine.

But even the military has been showing some cracks. Just before the invasion, the retired, but still influential, General Leonid Ivashov, in his capacity as chairman of the All-Russian Officers' Assembly, issued an appeal against what looked like Russia's impending invasion of Ukraine. He accused Putin of preparing for a war that Russia did not want. He called on Putin to resign. Brave words. But what support within the military did he think he had to give voice like this?

And what about the other power ministries? In a meeting of the Security Council chaired by Putin, and again, just prior to the invasion, the President asked his ministers to support the independence of the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk (Lugansk). It seemed that the room was not totally supportive of their leader. Neither the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, nor, especially, the head of the SVR (MI6/CIA equivalent), Sergei Naryshkin, appeared to be backing Putin.

Indeed, and interestingly, other indicators are now appearing. The Ukrainians are reporting that they are getting ‘tip-offs’ from the Russian FSB as to intended military operations within their country. Of course, this may be not true, but the Ukrainians may be understanding that are schisms within the Russian power ministries that can be enhanced by some judicious use of disinformation. This may set hares running in Moscow. Whose side is the FSB on?

So, as the stuttering campaign continues and as, moreover, civilian casualties mount against "brotherly" Ukrainians and as sanctions begin to bite for ordinary Russians, just what will Putin’s position be? Yes, the military might still be behind him but as its own casualties mount (and thus as the military itself loses popularity) will it too start to question the leadership?

It would, of course, take a brave collection of individuals within and around the Kremlin to launch a "palace coup". Such bravado may not be present yet, but just give it time.

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Rod Thornton

Rod Thornton

Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer

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