What It Would Take for a Coup by Kremlin Insiders
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina BoroganApril 11, 2022 FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Among the many questions surrounding Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine, one of the most notable concerns the growing tensions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his own security services and military.
The war started with Putin holding a televised security council meeting in which he humiliated Sergei Naryshkin, the chief of the foreign intelligence service, for insufficient enthusiasm about the invasion. Two weeks later, with Russian forces facing high casualties and unexpected resistance, Putin placed two generals of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) under house arrest and began an investigation into bad intelligence and the misuse of funds designated for cultivating pro-Kremlin groups in Ukraine. He also forced a deputy commander of the National Guard to resign, apparently because of a criminal investigation. In early April, one of the FSB generals who had been placed under house arrest was transferred to Lefortovo prison.
Then it was the military’s turn. For nearly two weeks in March, amid rumors that Putin was furious with the progress of the invasion, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the public face of the war and generally regarded as one of Putin’s most trusted lieutenants, disappeared from view. When Shoigu finally resurfaced, first in a video clip of a security council meeting and then in person at a conference in the Ministry of Defense, he appeared somber and withdrawn. At the end of March, U.S. intelligence forces suggested that the Russian Defense Ministry has not been giving Putin a clear picture about the war, perhaps out of fear of further repercussions. And on April 9, Putin reorganized the military chain of command, appointing General Alexandr V. Dvornikov to be in charge of the operations in Ukraine.
At first glance, these developments suggest a striking change. In the years before the war, the siloviki, as Russia’s security elite are known, had been one of the main power centers of Putin’s regime. As a former KGB officer himself, Putin has long relied on the security services to enforce his policies and help him maintain his grip on power. And although the siloviki have been somewhat eclipsed by Shoigu’s Defense Ministry in recent years, never before has Putin appeared to be so at odds with both the security services and the military as he is now. Given Putin’s increasingly ruthless crackdown on these men and the growing awareness in Moscow that the war has gone badly, some observers are wondering how long they will tolerate his catastrophic mistakes.
Such questions, however, overlook the historical relationship between the security forces and the Russian state—and the particular way that Putin has built his base of power. Although the recent developments are noteworthy, they do not suggest a larger breakdown of the existing order. Even amid the current tensions, the chances that leading members of the security or military elite might make a move against Putin remain slim. It is worth considering, then, why this is so, and what might have to happen for that to change.
Militarized, Not Mobilized
To understand why the siloviki may be unlikely to turn against Putin, it is necessary to first understand the historic relationship between the military and the state. Historically, the Russian army has never posed much of a threat to the country’s rulers. Unlike in other heavily militarized societies, there have been very few successful or attempted military coups in Russia. The last time the Russian army launched an open rebellion was in 1825, when the Decembrists tried to dethrone Tsar Nicolas I; the revolt failed disastrously, with most of the coup leaders killed or exiled. Nor has the Russian military given rise to alternative centers of power—in the mold of Egypt’s Free Officers, for example, who toppled King Farouk in 1952. This is not for lack of trying: on several occasions since the collapse of the Soviet Union, groups of military veterans have sought to gain political power, but each time they have failed.
During the 1990s, before Putin came to power, the Russian government was weak, and the Kremlin was forced to balance between competing groups. Sometimes, this led to efforts by members of the military to gain influence or even overthrow the government. In October 1993, a group of former Soviet veterans calling themselves the Union of Officers took part in an ultraconservative revolt, but they were arrested before the rebellion got underway. Four years later, a Russian combat general named Lev Rokhlin left the army and formed his own political party called the Movement in Support of the Army, which aimed at taking over the Kremlin. It quickly gained popularity, but then in 1998, Rokhlin’s wife shot him during a family feud at their dacha. The killing gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories, but one thing became clear: Rokhlin’s movement didn’t survive his death.
There have been very few successful coups in Russian history.
In those years, the security services and sometimes the generals and officers in the military would occasionally throw their weight behind powerful regional leaders, including the mayor of Moscow, as a counterweight to the president. But Putin has systematically eliminated that kind of threat. Russia no longer has any significant opposition forces. Putin’s political opponents have either been killed off (like Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015), thrown in jail (like Alexei Navalny, who has been locked up since January 2021 and was recently given a new sentence of nine years in a maximum security penal colony), or forced into exile (like nearly all of Navalny’s lieutenants and a growing number of former insiders, such as Vladimir Milov, the former deputy minister of energy, Sergei Aleksashenko, the former deputy finance minister, and even Andrei Kozyrev, the former foreign minister of Russia).
On the few occasions that members of the military have challenged Putin, they have been easily stopped in their tracks. In 2005, for example, Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired colonel in military intelligence, tried to assassinate Anatoly Chubais, the economist who was known as the father of Russia’s controversial privatization program of the 1990s. In the early 2000s, Chubais remained close to Putin and still enjoyed his support. Kvachkov’s group detonated a roadside bomb and sprayed Chubais’s car with automatic gunfire, but the assassination attempt failed, and Kvachkov was sent to prison. When Kvachkov was released, he mounted a political comeback that went nowhere, and he was later rearrested by the FSB. His popularity was limited to aging Red Army retirees who believed that the Soviet Union had been destroyed as a result of a Jewish conspiracy. Everyone else viewed him as a tainted has-been. As a Spetsnaz officer who heard one of Kvachkov’s speeches told us at the time, “Why should we listen to him about politics if he failed to execute an ambush operation of the kind he supposedly brought to perfection in Afghanistan?”
Watched from Behind
In fact, quite apart from Putin’s systematic elimination of opposition forces, there is a deeper structural reason for the military’s inability to launch an effective challenge to the Kremlin. During the Soviet years, the secret police kept the army under its watchful eye. As early as 1918, less than a year after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cheka, the precursor of the KGB, formed a unit to deal with dissent within the Red Army. This vigilance was continued under Stalin and his successors, all of whom kept a firm grip on the army: every military division had Communist Party cells planted in it, and the KGB established a large military counterintelligence force to spy on the army. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB was largely reconstituted as the FSB, with the new service occupying the same headquarters at Lubyanka and following many of the same practices.
Since coming to power, Putin has aggressively expanded these powers, giving the FSB wide latitude to monitor dissent within the military. As early as the beginning of 2000, when he was still acting president, Putin approved a new series of regulations that expanded the FSB’s involvement in military counterintelligence. The FSB was empowered to investigate, as the law put it, any “illegal armed formations, criminal groups, and individuals and public associations” that may be seeking a “violent change of the political system of the Russian Federation and the violent seizure or violent retention of power.” In 2004, the FSB’s military counterintelligence unit was elevated to the rank of a full department of the security services. Soon it became the largest division of the FSB, with numerous agents deployed in the Russian army
As a result of this mandate, FSB agents are pervasive in Russia’s military today. There are rules governing how many FSB agents must be assigned to each military unit and each military facility. According to FSB policy, for example, a small National Guard air base in Ermolino, in the region of Kaluga—a base that houses only six planes and perhaps a dozen helicopters—must be supervised by the local FSB chief, along with more than 20 recruited assets and 16 confidential contacts within the base’s personnel.
The FSB has a pervasive culture of mistrust.
In the war in Ukraine, the official role of the FSB is to make sure that Russian troops are not sabotaged or attacked from behind. FSB agents are also in charge of establishing political control over occupied territories, including cities and areas that have fallen into Russian control. But they also keep a watchful eye on the troops themselves.
With such incessant surveillance, the Russian army has never produced the kind of officers who might lead an effective revolt. But what about the FSB men themselves? As Putin’s own regime has shown, in contrast to the military, the KGB has produced one of the country’s most powerful leaders since Stalin. Arguably, then, the biggest threat to Putin might well come from the agency whose powers he has steadily bolstered over the years: the officers at Lubyanka.
Putin’s Willing Enforcers
If anyone is expecting members of the security services to rise up against Putin, however, they would do well to consider the negligible record of effective FSB dissent. The Russian security services have always been prone to corruption, but they have not been particularly adept at building effective power bases and patronage networks of their own. Because of the way the FSB is structured, individual officers tend to be loyal to their rank and position, rather than to particular senior officers within the services; if an FSB general loses his job, he cannot rely on the continued loyalty of his former subordinates.
Members of the FSB are also acutely aware that they may be subject to Putin’s crackdowns as much as anyone else. At present, there are dozens of FSB officers who have been jailed on charges of corruption and treason (often involving alleged spying for the United States). Although the charges are sometimes real, there often appear to be other motives determining who is targeted. In most cases, those who have been charged were arrested by the FSB’s own internal security department. As a result of these practices, there has long been a pervasive culture of mistrust within the FSB: midlevel officers don’t trust the generals, and the generals don’t trust their subordinates. Older members still recall that the 1991 putsch led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, failed because the rank and file chose to stand by and wait rather than participate in his plot.
The present generation of FSB officers, men in their 30s and 40s, have no memory of any president other than Putin and have built their careers under one director, Aleksandr Bortnikov, who has led the agency since 2007. They present a striking contrast to the previous generation, active in the 1990s, when the FSB rank and file was forced to continually navigate between different political groups jockeying for power. These days, the FSB officers serve only the president by obeying orders. Their main function is to ruthlessly eliminate any potential sources of opposition or dissent, pure and simple, no questions asked. And the elevated status they enjoy in Russian society has tended to make them even more loyal to the regime.
The Limits of Loyalty
Although Putin has long counted on the steadfast support of his military and security services, the war in Ukraine suggests that there may be limits to how far this can go. The increasingly visible tensions between him and senior members of his security elite suggest that Putin may be more paranoid than ever about possible challenges to his rule. On the other hand, such discord may also indicate that at least some members of his inner circle are displeased with the course he has set. And since Putin’s chosen way of dealing with problems—including the bad intelligence and bad military performance in Ukraine—is to blame the siloviki, they don’t feel particularly encouraged to give him an accurate picture about what is happening. They also don’t want to stick their necks out.
Lacking political experience and a broad base of support, the siloviki—both the security services and the military—are hardly capable of producing and leading a coup d’état on their own. Nor are they likely to be swayed if popular sentiment in Russia turns dramatically against Putin. But the siloviki are ruthless in protecting their own interests, and there is one way, at least, that they might lose faith: if Russia’s economic troubles reach the point that its regional governors begin to break ranks with Putin and the economic order that has sustained Putin’s security state for more than twenty years begins to collapse, then the siloviki may well conclude that the Kremlin is losing control of the country and that their own future is threatened. In that case, they could step aside and let it happen—or even provide a hand.