The economy in Russia is on its knees, the military is struggling in its attempt to take down Ukraine, and morale is reportedly floundering.
All of the grievances that traditionally motivate a coup against a dictator are in place, according to an expert on authoritarian regimes.
The likelihood of Putin being overthrown is now “a lot higher than it was a month ago,” said Adam Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, during an interview with Insider.
But because Putin has spent two decades devising mechanisms to shield himself from an unceremonious removal, Casey explained, nobody should be waiting with bated breath for his government to be toppled.
Searches for ‘Putin coup’ are rocketing
Interest in the prospect of a coup against Putin is at an all-time high, according to online searches.
Google Trends data shows that searches for “Putin coup” rocketed following the invasion of Ukraine, with the search term peaking in popularity (represented by 100 on the graph) during the week of February 27 to March 4.
The data shows that people continue to search for the term in unprecedented numbers.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last Thursdayshared a blunt tweet encouraging Putin’s removal: “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.”
Fellow legislators of both parties criticized Graham, saying his tweet was reckless and could escalate the conflict.
“The Russian military is not performing in the war in the way that most people expected, and it’s doing quite poorly overall,” Casey said.
US intelligence agencies say up to 6,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, the Guardian reported on Friday. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that its forces have killed 12,000 Russian soldiers and destroyed over 2,000 Russian vehicles, according to Forbes.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday that Russian soldiers “are having morale problems” in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance. Firsthand accounts suggest that many feel like they were misled about the purpose of the war in Ukraine, Insider reported.
And the economic catastrophe caused by sweeping international sanctions also means that middle-class Russians are “really feeling the crunch,” Casey said. The country’s elite are struggling, too; oligarchs’ luxury assets, including superyachts, are being targeted by the sanctions.
“Things that have motivated coups in other places are present,” Casey told Insider.
But Putin, who became the president of Russia in 2000, has spent two decades making his regime “coup-proof,” Casey explained. “He’s spent a lot of time and effort designing the Russian security apparatus in a way that sort of makes him relatively invulnerable to coups.”
Putin could be overthrown through a classic military coup, but Casey said that Putin had taken measures to make “less viable” in Russia.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, focuses on counterintelligence, internal and border security, and surveillance. It plays an integral role in monitoring the political reliability of military officials, Casey said.
Putin served as an intelligence officer in the KGB before being appointed head of the FSB — the KGB’s main successor organization — in 1998. After Putin was elected president in 2000, he orchestrated a reorganization of the spy agency that put him in direct control of it.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who died in 2006 after being poisoned, accused the agency of running a top-secret hit squad targeting political enemies. Human-rights groups have warned that the FSB uses its powers to intimidate and stifle dissent.
The FSB is a “pretty effective” form of coup prevention, Casey explained, because military officials are less likely to coordinate an overthrow of the government if they fear they are being monitored and risk being killed off, he said.
The FSB might be able to prevent a coup plot coming to fruition, Casey said, but the Federal Protective Service, or FSO, would protect Putin should an attempt to overthrow him take place.
The FSO is a federal government agency tasked with protecting Putin and several other high-ranking state officials. Casey said it is reminiscent of the “Praetorian Guard” — a military unit that served as the bodyguards and intelligence agents for the emperors of Ancient Rome.
Estimates suggest that close to 20,000 uniformed FSO members are working to secure Putin’s safety, he added.
Members of a special unit within the FSO, who call themselves “Musketeers,” serve as Putin’s bodyguards.
Members of this unit, who are automatically replaced upon turning 35, carry Russian-made 9mm SR-1 Vektor pistols, according to the New York Post. They form security rings around Putin in public, search out snipers, and scout locations in anticipation of any threat.
There is a plausible risk of people from the FSB or FSO turning on Putin, Casey said, but the Russian leader has structured these agencies to create a culture of mutual distrust to prevent successful coordination against him.
‘The intelligence agencies somewhat overlap in mandates,” Casey said. “So they sort of distrust and spy on each other as they also, obviously, perform their other intelligence functions.”
Mechanisms that instill fear aren’t the only way Putin has created structures to prevent conspiracy against him. He has also introduced measures to keep the military on-side and discourage rebellion, Casey said.
The Rosgvardia, or the National Guard, is an internal security service charged with quelling protests within the country. Putin created the Rosgvardia in 2016, in part, as a strategy to keep the Russian army happy.
“Armies are generally oriented to fighting external enemies of the state, and they really don’t like being used for crowd control,” Casey said.
The Russian army is “never going to be asked to fire on protesters” in Russia, Casey said. This, in turn, should reduce grievances that could motivate a coup.
However, there is a scenario in which the internal security troops are forced to respond violently to mass protests. “You could imagine, and this has happened other places, Putin asking one of his internal security guys to launch a crackdown, and them saying, ‘No. I’d rather resign,’ and then quitting,” Casey said.
If enough people resign, Casey explained, that could be “one possible endgame” for Putin.
A so-called “palace coup,” when officials orchestrate a nonviolent overthrow of a regime, is more likely than a classic military coup, said Casey.
Protests in Russia are unlikely to lead to a revolution, Casey said, but may indicate to elites that a successful coup could lead to them gaining power and influence under a new regime.
And an unpopular order to crack down on mass protests could lead to a flurry of high-profile resignations and, in turn, Putin being pushed out. “When these things go down, they go down in cascades,” Casey said.
But Putin has created a political atmosphere in which dissent carries “enormous” risk, Casey said. “If you mobilize against Putin and you fail, you’re looking at jail, exile, death,” he explained. “To move against him and fail is hugely costly for you and your family.”
Putin offered an insight into his intolerance toward subordination in his inner circle when he publicly gave a dressing down to Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, during a Russian Security Council meeting in late February, Casey said.
“He made it clear that he alone was the top of the system and they serve at his discretion,” he added.
While a country in crisis is more likely to experience a coup, Casey stressed that toppling the leader of an authoritarian regime is no easy feat.
“After all, Putin has spent the last 22 years or so kind of preparing for this eventuality,” he said.