In early November, many observers started to write about signs of internal divides inside the Russian political elite. Most of these references point out the increasing influence of two prominent strongmen: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner and commander of the Wagner mercenary army (that comprises around 37,000-people strong paramilitary force, which include more than 11,500 convicted criminals, illegally released from the Russian prisons), and Ramzan Kadyrov, a former guerrilla who became the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya (that commands up to 70,000 compatriots largely unaccountable to Russia's political leadership and competing security forces).
Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov recently emerged as straightforward critics of Russian army commanders, insisting that the war against Ukraine should be intensified by any means (even through recruiting murderers and rapists from the Russian jails) and by any methods (not only destroying Ukrainian critical infrastructure, but, as Kadyrov mentioned: "If a shell comes in our direction, our region, we need to wipe [Ukrainian] cities off the face of the Earth... So they cannot even think of shooting in our direction").
It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being greatly influenced by both, as he agreed to fire his top commanders, supposedly following their advice. Further, some insiders stated that both "Wagner" mercenaries and the Chechen military had already started preparations for street fighting in Moscow in case the situation in the Russian capital runs out of control.
Three Elite Groups May Organize A Coup, Or Join It
The prospect of a coup d'état in Russia cannot be excluded. I would say that such an option, except of his own death from natural causes, looks like the only realistic one that could end Putin's rule in the coming years. The military failures in Ukraine, Russia's inability to cope with the deepening economic crisis, growing emigration, and many other challenges make the situation in the country less stable almost every day. Hence, the ruling elite feels the pressure to fix the situation.
At this point, there is no chance either for an orderly democratic transition (contrary to a rumor, many years old, about a search for "Putin's successor," the Kremlin reportedly started preparing for the 2024 presidential election without allowing any meaningful candidate that could challenge Putin) or a maidan-like popular revolution. In fact, even after the recent military mobilization that shook up Russian society's quiet life, no one opted for going to the streets and protesting for the common good, while hundreds of thousands of Russians readily fled out the country in search of personal safety.
Therefore, in the coming years, there are only two political paths for Russia: the overthrowing of Putin by some elite groups or the consolidation of the current regime, which will continue to rule in an even more authoritarian way. Assessing these two options, I would obviously prefer the first one, no matter who may stay after the coup. To my mind, there are three elite groups that might be interested if not in organizing the coup, then in joining it and profiting from it:
The first group is the army, which has been humiliated since the start of the war in Ukraine. The war itself was launched mostly due to profound miscalculations about Ukraine's military readiness made by the FSB. Yet, as mentioned by the Washington Post: "The humiliations of Russia's military have largely overshadowed the failures of the FSB and other intelligence agencies." The Russian army suffered enormous losses – up to 70,000 troops were killed, among them not less than 10,000 officers. The prestige of the military service has dropped dramatically, and the army has been stuffed by people with criminal records. At the same time, Prigozhin can now displace high-ranked commanders and even accuse them of treason. The army commanders are the most interested in terminating the war, since they realize that the Russian military will continue to pay the higher price.
The army possesses all the necessary capabilities for deposing the country's leadership, although one should note that military coups are not familiar in Russia, as the last successful was in 1741, and the last failed coup happened in 1825. Hence, top army commanders may instead prefer to join some political faction to topple the regime (as happened in 1953, shortly after Stalin's death) rather than organizing a coup on their own.
It is worth noting that, if such a coup happens, some groups not associated with secret services could take power. In this scenario, the transfer of power to political personalities, such as Moscow's mayor Sergey Sobyanin or Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, may be stable and successful, since it would match with people's hopes for normality. However, Putin may also be overthrown by a "radical gang," and in this case the society would consolidate against these new people leading to a revolution, since none of the "radical" personalities has the "legitimacy" or the charisma that Putin now possesses.
Prigozhin And Kadyrov
The second group is formed by Prigozhin and Kadyrov, who may like to try to consolidate the regime. They want to continue the war against Ukraine, "mobilize" the entire Russian economy, and deliver the "victory" that Putin is unable to secure. Hence, removing Putin may seem to them to be the only option to secure their status in Russia's power elite, and, quite probably, their personal security.
However, this scenario seems to be the least probable, since it is hard to believe that these two "hawkish" political actors may revolt, as both have been completely dependent on Putin for decades. Furthermore, Prigozhin and Kadyrov would have the support of neither the security services nor the army, whose involvement would be necessary for the success of the coup, since there is deep distrust toward them. It is also worth noting that Russian society would not support an intensification of the war and the strengthening of authoritarianism.
Politically, Russia has been evolving for centuries like a "pendulum" – a more isolationist and brutal regime has been substituted with a more open, less cruel, and sometimes Western-oriented one. The vast majority of the Russian people, I would say, could tolerate Putin's adventures for quite a long time, not so much because they like his policies, but rather because they trust the president that has been leading the country for such a long period. The regime's ability to enhance the authoritarian and aggressive course resides in Putin's personality and cannot be overtaken by someone else. Therefore, I would argue that there is no chance for people more radical than Putin himself to lead the country.
Bureaucrats And Businesspeople
The second group is the bureaucrats and businesspeople who have been amassing fortunes in Russia, securing their money in foreign jurisdictions, buying real estate and other assets in Europe and the United States, and relocating their families to the West's "unfriendly" countries. These people are the most interested in a profound change in Russia's policies as well as in the restoration of the ruined relationships with the West. However, as I have mentioned numerous times, they will never openly revolt against Putin's regime, because the current Russian system works for them. The secret of Putin's system resides in the fact that any collective action is devalued in Russia. Some entrepreneurs, or ordinary people may bribe the officials on a case-by-case basis and resolve their problems successfully – but if some political or social group tries to consolidate and force the government to change laws or regulations through collective action, one can be sure that nothing will happen except for the tightening of the rules. This actually makes corruption so effective and widespread.
However, in case a coup happens, its leaders (with the exception of Prigozhin and Kadyrov) may get significant support both from bureaucrats (that can promote new leaders, who were not actively involved into the war with Ukraine) and from the business elite, which can provide financial resources needed for legitimization of new leaders through election campaigns. This is a very important point, since Russia has never experienced a military dictatorship – even under the Communists, it was headed by a party that simulated a civil rule and collective leadership. This is also why I cannot imagine a pure dictatorship of some mediocre personalities taking hold in Russia in case Putin leaves the Kremlin.
Any Political Destabilization Is Better Than Regime's Consolidation
Russian opposition to the current regime is weak and unable to rise to any kind of collective action. We have already seen hundreds of thousands of people rushing to exile rather than trying to organize a resistance to the recent "mobilization" and Russian emigration has no real contact with the local communities inside the country. Nevertheless, any political destabilization in Russia is a better option than the consolidation of the regime.
Russian citizens are becoming less satisfied with the current course of events; the discontent and the feeling of fear and uncertainty are on the rise inside Russian society – but by itself these factors cannot influence the situation significantly. The mood of the people might become a crucial factor for change only if the power elite splits or disintegrates. Otherwise (and such a development, I would reiterate, still looks like the most probable one) Putin might be able to suppress the sporadic protests, squeeze even more active and self-made young people out of the country and continue his aggressive war against Ukraine almost indefinitely, since sanctions, as it appears, do not harm the Russian economy in the way in which Western leaders hoped it would.
For years, Western analysts have argued that as bad as Putin's regime may be, it should not be undermined, mostly because Russian ultra-nationalists or the military may take over the country, especially if the people called for free and democratic elections. Many have suggested, that Putin is politically and culturally "more European" than most Russians.
However, I would say, the situation has changed dramatically. Indeed, there are people and forces inside the country that look more radical than Putin (like Anton Krasovsky, a presenter on Russian state-controlled RT media, who suggested the Ukrainian children who do not want to learn the Russian language should simply be killed), but these people would not have popular support if they ever came to power. It is worth noting that some of these radical characters are being paid to express their extreme views in order to show that Putin is a moderate leader.
Furthermore, Russia is already an imperialist aggressive fascist state. The fall of Putin's regime will mark the start of a long and difficult "return to normal," even if those who will contribute to it may have more imperialistic ambitions than Putin himself. The time for change has come. No one should fear that the future Russia will be worse than the current one and "The Worse, The Better" approach should be applied to Russia without any reluctance.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.
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