Opinion: How Putin could be removed from power – and who would replace him
12 March 2022
It’s hard to envisage the Russian president stepping down, but a coup from within the corridors of the Kremlin may force the issue says Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).
Vladimir Putin is in for the fight of his life. His brutal and ill-conceived war in Ukraine, a personal crusade he has foisted on his country, has left his army mired abroad and an economy reeling under unprecedented Western sanctions at home. For 22 years he was the one constant of Russian politics, but no wonder people are thinking much more sharply not only about a Russia after Putin, but how that may be brought about.
After all, who would have thought that a country so deeply embedded in the global economic system could so quickly be disconnected from so much of it? That a country with notionally more than half a trillion pounds in its foreign reserves would be debating emergency price regulation for medicines, basic foods and baby products. That a military machine in which Putin has invested so much for so long could stumble and fall as soon as it steps into neighbouring Ukraine.
Indeed, on Monday, Putin, the man who four days before had vowed to destroy “this ‘Anti-Russia’ created by the West”, signalled that he was willing to cut his losses. The terms he offered Kyiv were still unrealistic and unacceptable, but having previously indicated that he wanted to take the whole country – to, as he put it, “denazify” it – now he is only seeking Crimea and the south-eastern Donbas region. Of course, at the same time he is escalating the brutality of the onslaught, hoping to negotiate from a position of strength, having taken more cities. However, it reflects the way that even this most out-of-touch of leaders is aware that this debacle threatens him and his regime.
In a system which has become so personalised and authoritarian, though, the usual mechanisms for the transfer of power do not apply. It may therefore be more out of hope than anything else that there are those in Russia and beyond wondering if mortality will do the job.
Rumours are multiplying. Might his strange terror of infection – never mind those comically long tables, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro apparently had to take five Covid tests to be able to shake his hand – be a sign he is suffering from a disease weakening his immune system? Footage of a trembling hand might indicate Parkinson’s. The puffiness of his face could be a sign of steroid treatment. Illness or a sense of impending mortality might help explain his splenetic new moods, and why a leader who in the past was much more cautious than his macho persona would suggest, now seems to be an angry old man in a hurry.
Barring any such deus ex machina, it is hard to see him standing down voluntarily. He periodically toyed with handing the presidency to a successor, perhaps retaining some “father of the nation” role. However, in a system where politics trumps law, that means putting yourself at another’s mercy, and Putin is not a man who trusts easily at the best of times. Besides, he is clearly obsessed with his place in history – he could only step down on a high, and it is hard to see any triumphs in his future.
In theory, Putin could be removed through the constitution. Article 93 allows for impeachment on the basis of serious crimes. Yet that requires not only a two-thirds vote in both chambers of parliament, but also the consent of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts. All have been packed with loyalists, and even if these opportunists thought that they were being led to destruction, it is almost impossible to see any kind of conspiracy being organised without it coming to the Kremlin’s attention.
After all, not only is the much-feared Federal Security Service (FSB) tasked with watching the elite, but so too is the more secretive Federal Protection Service (FSO). Better known for the colourfully-uniformed Kremlin guards and Putin’s black-suited and earpiece-wearing personal security detail, every morning the FSO submits to the president a dossier on what is going on within the elite, based on agents, informants and phone taps. It must make for interesting reading, these days.
The most extreme option some in the West are openly discussing is the prospect of outright assassination. This is highly unlikely, not least because the security precautions around “the Body”, as Putin is known by his security detail, are massive, complex and comprehensive to the point of paranoia. He rarely travels much these days anyway, except between his palaces and the Kremlin, and then in the presidential aircraft or an armoured Aurus Kortezh limo escorted by a huge motorcade with motorcycle outriders, vans full of heavily-armed FSO officers, an ambulance and an electronic warfare vehicle to jam any bomb detonators along the route and divert drones. Like a medieval monarch, he retains a food taster, and even the air in his palaces is constantly monitored for pathogens and poisons.
Tsar Nicholas II was infamously murdered by the Bolsheviks, but only after they had seized him and his family. The last Russian ruler who fell to an assassin was Tsar Alexander II, over 140 years ago and the FSO has no intention of letting any re-runs happen on their watch.
Where precision is impossible, what about brute force? It is a mark of the times that rumours – seemingly wholly fanciful – have been circulating that defence minister Sergei Shoigu is under suspicion of planning a coup. Certainly the only institutions which would seem able to oust Putin in a coup would be either the security agencies or, more plausibly, the army.
The military have two elite divisions outside Moscow, the 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya” Tank Division and the 2nd Guards “Tamanskaya” Mechanised Division, as well as two Spetsnaz special forces units close by. However, not only are they carefully watched by the FSB’s military counter-intelligence department, one of whose primary roles is to sniff out potential disloyalty, but they also face a series of other units in Moscow. The National Guard, a parallel internal security army under former Putin bodyguard and arch-loyalist Viktor Zolotov has the oversized 1st Independent Special Designation Division based in the east of the city. They have their own tanks, artillery and anti-tank missiles, making it pretty clear that their role is, if necessary, to take on the military.
Meanwhile, if that were not enough, the FSO’s Kremlin Regiment may be better known for the ramrod-stiff soldiers standing watch over the Eternal Flame just outside the fortress’s walls, but in crisis would exchange their pretty red-and-blue uniforms and ceremonial bolt-action rifles for camouflage and AK-74 assault rifles. There are 5,500 of them, hand-picked for their loyalty as much as their martial skills. In short, any attempt by the military alone to seize power and topple Putin could be a dangerous and messy venture, potentially leading to open warfare in Moscow’s streets.
If mortality, muscle or machination do see Putin leave power, though, who might succeed him? It would probably be a technocrat, a strongman or a proxy.
The constitution says that the prime minister steps in first as interim president before elections are held. Current incumbent Mikhail Mishustin is a former head of the Federal Tax Service. He has been in office since January 2020, and so his tenure has been under the shadow of Covid. Nonetheless, unlike his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, he has already managed to create the image of the no-nonsense and hard-headed manager. He also has just enough of a personal life to give the spin doctors something to craft a narrative around him. He plays ice hockey and the piano and has even written songs for Grigory Leps, a gravelly-voiced pop star sanctioned by the US government for alleged mafia connections.
The 56-year-old Mishustin could be the obvious choice for a technocratic successor, but he has not yet been at the centre of power long enough to build himself a network of clients and allies. Other figures such as Moscow’s well-regarded mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, might also be in with a chance. More to the point, it would be hard to see a managerial candidate actually being able to bring down Putin. Their chance would only come if someone or something else opened the door for them.
Someone like defence minister Shoigu might actually be able to kick that door open for himself. He is not by background a military man. He was a civil engineer who then became the emergencies minister in the 1990s, a job which for many would have been the kiss of death, making him responsible for every natural or man-made disaster in that unruly decade. Yet he made a virtue of necessity and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved in anything, from comforting relatives to digging through rubble, actually made him a national figure.
Shoigu also made the emergencies ministry, originally a dysfunctional a collection of agencies, one of the most efficient, trusted and even honest government departments in Russia. Appointed to head a divided and disgruntled defence ministry in 2012, Shoigu again was able to push forward reform and win the loyalty of soldiers and generals alike. This is, after all, a man with a unique political touch. Not only is he the only figure to make his way into Putin’s inner circle without having been a long-term friend from the KGB or Putin’s time in St Petersburg, he has also managed to rise within the carnivorous world of Russian politics without apparently making blood enemies on the way.
Shoigu might be the kind of savvy strongman at once able to wield the muscle to topple Putin and also the political skills to reassure the rest of the elite. Other key figures within the security apparatus, such as FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov or National Guard commander Zolotov, are too closely linked to Putin and too mistrusted to be credible candidates.
For all his current role in the Ukraine war, Shoigu appears to be a pragmatic kind of nationalist. Pervasive rumours suggest he was the only member of Putin’s inner circle not to support the annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, if experience of other coups is anything to go by, it is often the case that the initiator does not get to enjoy power long term. It may be that the 66-year-old Shoigu would simply be a transitional figure, who sweeps away the worst of Putinism, and sets the scene for the next generation of leaders.
In theory, that could include the 56-year-old Medvedev, the only modern Russian politician to have been both prime minister and president. He was only president as Putin’s front man and chair-warmer, though, for the period 2008-12, while his boss governed from the prime minister’s office as a way to get round term limits.
He does not strike an impressive figure, though. Of late, Medvedev, who holds an honorific but essentially meaningless position as deputy chairman of the Security Council, has been trying to reinvent himself as a hawk, taking extreme positions on everything from the death penalty to seizing the assets of companies leaving Russia. Nonetheless, he is now something of a laughing stock. In 2016, opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s followers starting using yellow rubber ducks as a light-hearted symbol of protest after he revealed that Medvedev’s “summer house” was actually a sumptuously-renovated 18th-century palace with an extravagant duck house on a lake.
Medvedev could conceivably be president again, but only as a proxy, if a collection of powerful figures – none powerful enough to seize the presidency for themselves – want a front man they do not have to fear.
In any case, whoever succeeds Putin is likely to have to be a different and even transitional figure, shaped not just by the hard times facing Russia but also the rising political generation. Putin is 69, and most of his close allies are the same age or older. They are in many ways the last of the true Soviet elite.
Beneath them, increasingly impatient at an older generation that still seems intent on replaying the Cold War, and squandering their future in the process, is a rather different cohort of officials and businesspeople in their 50s and early 60s. They are by no means democrats, and can be every bit as hard-nosed as their seniors. However, in my experience at least, they lack the venomous and vindictive passion for Russia’s struggle with the West evident in Putin and people like his Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the FSB’s Bortnikov, both 70 years old.
This younger generation is made up of, to be blunt, pragmatic kleptocrats. They hanker after the good old days of the 2000s, when they were free to embezzle at home on an industrial scale, yet spend and bank that money in the West without fear of sanctions, asset freezes and Swift bans. They may not dare to turn against Putin now, as their fortunes and freedom are in his hands, but they are unlikely to want to continue his crusade against the West if they can possibly avoid it.
All of which is why the West must be careful and clever. With our screens darkened with terrible images of a maternity hospital shelled and Mariupol being starved into submission, it is only human that people have begun suggesting that something ought to be done to try to topple Putin’s regime or even remove him. This is understandable – but inadvisable.
First of all, if you come at the tsar, you best not miss. Assassination or regime change by covert action have a pretty poor track record. The CIA came up with, or launched, 638 separate attempts to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro, yet he still died of natural causes aged 90, after 52 years in power.
Directly targeting Putin and failing would set a dangerous precedent and trigger retaliation. How would our MPs and senior civil servants enjoy having to check their door handles for Novichok every time they got home? Even a successful assassination would likely anger Russians from across the political spectrum and make it harder for a successor to roll back his aggressive policies and improve relations with the West.
For moment, then, it looks as if both we and the Russians are stuck with Putin. But in war, things can change quickly.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was meant to be a “nice, victorious little war” in the words of interior minister Vyacheslav von Plehve, to demonstrate Russia’s strength to the world and restore public morale. As it was, a dismal and embarrassing defeat sparked the unsuccessful 1905 revolution. Likewise, the economic crisis and horrifying losses Russia endured in the First World War led to growing unrest that drove the elite to force the tsar to abdicate. The Soviet war in Afghanistan of 1979-89, a war the Kremlin at first tried to pretend wasn’t even happening, didn’t bring down the regime but did become a metaphor for all the other things wrong with an economically-stagnant, mismanaged and corrupt regime.
Already, critical voices are even being heard on TV programmes that usually deliver nothing less than undiluted state propaganda. Guests on the primetime show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, sanctioned for his role as a Kremlin mouthpiece, drew direct comparisons with Afghanistan and warned that public opinion could quickly change. Meanwhile, on the army’s own TV channel, Zvezda, a serving officer, pushed home the scale of casualties. In both cases, the naysayers were shouted down – the Zvezda presenter insisted that “our guys are smashing the fascist snakes” – but it is unprecedented for such views to be aired on state television, and a sign of the growing mood of dissatisfaction.
History is no map of the future, but it does remind us of how war can change everything. It may seem almost inconceivable that Putin’s reign could end any day soon, but now he has made an all-out gamble on war in Ukraine, all bets are off.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 11th March 2022.
- Original article in The Telegraph
- Professor Mark Galeotti’s academic profile
- UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies
- UCL Social & Historical Sciences