Russian President Vladimir Putin has lost touch with reality. He has declared a partial mobilization to reverse his defeats in Ukraine and, signaling his desperation, ratcheted up Russia’s nuclear saber rattling. Each day the war drags on, his country grows more isolated from the rest of the world. Increasingly, Russia depends on China to keep its economy from collapsing under the weight of sanctions, even as Chinese leaders express doubts about the invasion. Russia’s failure to take Kyiv, and its recent reversals in the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, have led even pro-Putin commentators to question his decisions. Against this backdrop, it makes sense that many Russians are starting to ask how much longer Putin can stay in power and pursue his barbarous war. The handful of municipal deputies who boldly petitioned Putin to resign publicly expressed what many in the Russian political elite are privately pondering. Surely, it seems, someone in the murky halls of the Kremlin will decide that he must go.
But even if Putin’s deputies conclude they want Putin out, removing him from power will be difficult. Moscow has experienced no coup attempts, successful or unsuccessful, since the Soviet Union fell. There have not even been serious plots—publicly known ones, at least. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s confrontation with the Supreme Soviet in 1993—which ended only after Russian tanks fired on the parliament building—is the closest thing the country has experienced to a coup. And even that does not qualify since it was a very public standoff between an executive and a legislature.
Yeltsin’s Russia, however, was relatively open and democratic, allowing for a degree of legitimate contestation. With Putin cracking down on dissent and taking Russia into ever bleaker authoritarianism, the history of the Soviet Union offers a more apt comparison to the present—and better clues about what might make a coup succeed or fail today. The record here is still not terribly encouraging, but it is more mixed. Top officials successfully organized to topple Nikita Khrushchev. Others seized power during rare moments when the country lacked a clear head of state. These officials typically displayed no guiding ideology or political principles, just raw ambition. Success depended largely on timing and force: moving quickly and aggressively when the incumbent leader displayed weakness.
In the case of Putin, there is no shortage of possible usurpers. The president’s coterie of sycophants, crisis managers, and would-be heirs are a colorful bunch. They were selected for their unquestioning loyalty to Putin, but loyalty is a relative concept in a highly treacherous environment. None of them can fully trust Putin. None of them can afford to trust one another. And if they are brought to office through a coup, they will likely want to put significant daylight between themselves and their predecessor, including—and perhaps especially—his failures in Ukraine. Even if they come to power after Putin dies, they may chart a new course that leads away from imperialism.
COMRADES AND RIVALS
In the Soviet Union, coups were rare. Consider, for instance, the tenure of Joseph Stalin, a brutal dictator who unleashed decades of bloody repression that engulfed even leading Communist officials. Of the 139 members and candidate members of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee elected at the 1934 Party Congress, 98 were later arrested and shot at Stalin’s behest. The vengeful and paranoid autocrat targeted his closest comrades, humiliating them or setting them off against each other. Khrushchev, his eventual successor, recalled in disgust that he thought a day was nigh when Stalin would “pull down his pants and relieve himself in front of us, and then say that this was in the interests of the Motherland”. If such an outrage had happened, no one would have batted an eye.
In retrospect, it seems almost inconceivable that the Soviet party elite tolerated the bloodthirsty tyrant. Yet they did. That may have been in part out of recognition of Stalin’s accomplishments as a veteran revolutionary and a war leader. But it was also certainly out of fear for their own lives. Keeping him in power was dangerous, but plotting a coup was even riskier. Failure would have meant certain death.
When Stalin died, a power struggle ensued, and it was not kind to his closest accomplices. The first victim was Stalin henchman and Minister of Interior Lavrenty Beria, who was feared and despised by his colleagues. He already had control of the security services with their considerable surveillance and policing capabilities—and their reputation for unmitigated brutality. He had accumulated kompromat on the other senior leaders. What he did not have was authority in the party and in the country, which made it possible for others to move against him, provided they did so quickly.
Beria’s ouster was so chaotic and so secretive that even today, with most relevant archives declassified, it is impossible to say exactly what happened. But by most accounts, Khrushchev and Prime Minister Georgy Malenkov played key roles. The two first quietly asked the other members of the Presidium—the top policy-making body—how they would react to a move against Beria. Then they smuggled several senior military officers, including Marshal Georgy Zhukov, into the Kremlin. During a Presidium discussion, Khrushchev brought up Beria’s sins, while Malenkov pressed a secret button that called for the military to move in and arrest the astonished Beria. He was later tried by a kangaroo court, where he was not allowed to defend himself (probably for fear that he might implicate other senior leaders in the vile crimes of the Stalin era). He was found guilty and executed.
In later years, Khrushchev largely sidelined Malenkov. No one would have expected such an outcome after Stalin’s death: Khrushchev’s credentials and political position were far inferior to Malenkov’s. But Khrushchev could and did act decisively, even brusquely, which almost caused his downfall. In a June 1957 meeting, a group of disgruntled Presidium heavyweights accused Khrushchev of dictatorial propensities and attempted to oust to him. The vote at the Presidium was seven against Khrushchev and four in favor, and he almost lost power. But he managed to win Zhukov, then the defense minister, and KGB Chairman Ivan Serov to his side, and they helped mobilize his supporters in the Central Committee—which voted to overrule the Presidium. Several months later, Khrushchev showed his gratitude by removing Zhukov from power.
Khrushchev survived at the top for another seven years before he was finally ousted in a palace coup in October 1964. Leading the conspiracy was Khrushchev’s own protégé, Leonid Brezhnev, who took advantage of growing disenchantment in the party and government ranks with the Soviet leader’s endless bureaucratic reorganizations, his habit of humiliating his colleagues, his tendency to embrace cure-all economic fixes that fixed nothing, and above all, his insufferable boasting.
Brezhnev worked closely with Alexander Shelepin, Khrushchev’s other protégé and the former head of the KGB, as well as the current KGB head Vladimir Semichastny. They took advantage of Khrushchev’s absence. The Soviet leader was vacationing in Abkhazia when he was urgently recalled to Moscow, where his Presidium colleagues presented him with a list of complaints and called on him to resign. This time, the conspirators kept the rest of the elite in line. The hastily called party plenum confirmed that Khrushchev was to retire “for health reasons”. Brezhnev, seen at first as compromise figure, gradually consolidated his hold on power by easing rivals—Shelepin first and foremost—out of office.
One striking feature of these power struggles was the absence of policy differences between the conspirators and their victims. The notions that Beria represented a qualitatively different approach to foreign policy than did Khrushchev or that Khrushchev and Malenkov had deep disagreements over de-Stalinization have now largely been discredited. Khrushchev’s comrades did cite his misadventures during the Cuban missile crisis and his quarreling with China among reasons for his ouster. But ultimately, Soviet elites considered foreign policy a specialty area where only the top leader had the experience and judgment necessary to make decisions. It played a secondary role to domestic concerns. And fundamentally, palace coups were about personal relations in the corridors of power: naked ambitions and the backstabbing of rivals.
Also notable was the failure of the military brass or the security services to capitalize on the intrigue. The army and security services played an essential role in helping leaders take power, and yet neither Zhukov nor Shelepin nor Semichastnyi managed to benefit much from the fruits of their labor. After Beria’s ouster, the senior party leaders kept the military and the KGB at an arm’s length. The Soviet Union never became a military junta. Indeed, when the military and the KGB attempted to lead a coup, as they did in 1991 against late Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, they proved incredibly incompetent and were promptly defeated.
Finally, there was never a trace of foreign involvement in any of these power struggles. Beria was accused by his opponents of being a Western spy, but this was a preposterous allegation. In 1957, Khrushchev expressed gratitude to the Chinese for backing him (Chinese historian Shen Zhihua even argues that his agreement, which he later reneged upon, to give the Chinese a nuclear bomb was a way of saying thank-you), but their support came after the fact: Beijing was not, and could not, be involved in the Kremlin’s intrigues. In 1964, China vaguely hoped that Khrushchev would be ousted because he pursued anti-Beijing policies, but it played no role in his downfall, and Brezhnev stayed his course.
The Americans and the Chinese found themselves supporting opposite sides in the 1991 coup attempt. But just as U.S. President George H. W. Bush quietly reconciled himself to continuing his dialogue with the junta (before they spectacularly failed), Beijing quickly backpedaled its support for the military and, in time, pragmatically embraced the radical democrat Yeltsin.
JOCKEYING FOR POSITION
Following the twists and turns of the Kremlin’s infighting is a difficult endeavor. Political alliances at the top tend to shift very quickly. The outcomes of power struggles hinge on perceptions of success, and most players prefer to sit it out on the sidelines. Sometimes, the machinations lead to nothing. For all the failures and abuses, a leader may well live out his life in power and die from natural causes.
There is scarcely any doubt that Putin prefers this final scenario. Although some observers speculated that the constitutional amendments he pushed through in March 2020, which made it more difficult for former presidents to be stripped of immunity, were designed to let him retire, that prospect now seems inconceivable. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev found himself embroiled in scandals and targeted by mass protests several years after stepping down in March 2019, which demonstrated to other autocrats that even orchestrated transitions rarely work as intended.
Putin has likely decided to stay in office. But as his reign of corruption and infamy approaches its 23rd anniversary, and as Putin nears 70, it is almost certain that his would-be replacements are carefully eyeing one another and thinking through potential succession scenarios. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, an apparatchik of distinguished pedigree but a now hopelessly tarnished military record, is an unlikely contender, though his support will be essential for any power-grabbing plot. The head of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, is sometimes named among Putin’s successors, but this seems unlikely, if for no other reason than he is even older than Putin.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev has resorted to genocidal rhetoric to stay relevant, but no one takes him seriously. The devious chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, is clearly in the running, and he controls the rubberstamp legislature crucial for any post facto legitimization of the new leader. Then there is Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, the able technocrat and a dark horse galloping across terrain where dark horses have historically scored big victories. Former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, a lapsed liberal whom Putin has entrusted with the oversight of occupied Ukrainian territory, has his hat in the ring. Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and the present head of the National Guard, may well hope to succeed his boss. So could Alexander Kurenkov, another former Putin bodyguard and now the Minister of Emergency Situations. Finally, there are the outsiders: the indefatigable Chechen don Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin confidant and Russian oligarch who controls the paramilitary Wagner group.
All these candidates are implicated in Putin’s many violent acts, including his invasion of Ukraine. And on the surface, it seems that each one’s ascension would change little about Russia’s foreign agenda. But the Kremlin’s power plays rarely involve questions of principle, and successors may well break with the behavior of predecessors when convenient. That means that Putin’s eventual replacement does not have to be invested in his neo-imperialist agenda. Indeed, were Putin ousted, his successors would likely blame Ukraine on his decisions and try to begin with a clean slate.
Analysts, of course, do not know whether losses in Ukraine will shake Putin’s hold on power. And his successor may ultimately continue the war to placate Russia’s ultranationalists or simply because of inertia. But if Putin does go, the world should use his departure as a chance to resume negotiations for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. A post-Putin Russia may still be autocratic, but it does not have to continue his reckless overseas adventures.
Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a member of the School’s Kissinger Center. He is based at SAIS Europe in Bologna, Italy.