The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is a coup against Putin possible? Russia’s history offers clues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, second left, and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov, left, during a meeting in Moscow on Feb. 27. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history and politics, including, most recently, “Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.”

Vladimir Putin has never faced a serious challenge to his power. But his disastrous war in Ukraine could change that.

The chances of a popular uprising against the Kremlin remain low. A recent poll from Russia’s independent Levada Center shows that 83 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s performance as president in March, up from 71 percent in the previous month. Most Russians have minimal access to information outside of state-controlled propaganda, and anyone who dares to take to the streets faces draconian punishments.

The most likely threat to his rule comes from within the regime. Russia’s history offers some insights.

There have been two successful coups d’état since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 — the overthrow of Stalin’s dreaded secret police chief Lavrenti Beria in June 1953 and the ouster of Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964. Aside from the execution of Beria and six of his associates, these coups were relatively bloodless. In both cases, the support of the security services and the Soviet military were crucial to their success.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, Beria’s fellow Presidium members, led by Khrushchev, became alarmed over his increasing power and his anti-Stalinist policies. But getting rid of Beria was a challenge, because he headed the powerful Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which combined both the regular police and the security services. The plotters were able to rely on Soviet military leaders, including Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin and Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who had a deep animosity toward Beria and the MVD, for support in arresting an unsuspecting Beria at a hastily convened leadership meeting.

Although the operation was successful — Beria was tried and shot the following December — it was highly risky, and the Khrushchev group faced considerable danger as they subdued potential opposition from the Beria camp over the days following his arrest. But they managed — with promises of promotions — to persuade Beria’s two seemingly loyal deputies, Sergei Kruglov and Ivan Serov, to betray their boss and keep rank-and-file MVD officers in line.

Khrushchev’s ouster 11 years later was an equally perilous operation for Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo colleagues, who had decided that Khrushchev was overstepping the bounds of their collective leadership. Brezhnev was reportedly so terrified that his plan would backfire that had the commander of his personal guard spend nights outside his door with an automatic weapon. And there were vacillations: Before agreeing to go along with Brezhnev, key Politburo members Aleksei Kosygin and Mikhail Suslov demanded assurances that the plot had the backing of both the military and the KGB.

KGB chief Vladimir Semichastny played a pivotal role. He met Khrushchev at the airport upon his return from a Black Sea vacation and informed him that he was out of his job. Flanked by a group of KGB guards, Semichastny warned Khrushchev not to resist. Khrushchev, who had appointed Semichastny to his KGB post and considered him a close ally, felt deeply betrayed, but he accepted his fate and the transfer of power took place smoothly.

Efforts to depose Putin would require either active or passive support from three key organizations — the military, the FSB (successor to the KGB) and the National Guard (“Rosgvardiya”). Putin has firm allies in place in all of these institutions. FSB Chief Aleksandr Bortnikov belongs to Putin’s Leningrad/St. Petersburg clan of former KGB officers and is a direct protege of Putin and National Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, who Bortnikov replaced as FSB chief in 2008. The FSB has its own special troops and a vast network of counterintelligence officers to watch over the military.

Although not from St. Petersburg or a KGB veteran, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has worked closely with Putin for years, first as minister of emergency situations and since 2012 in his defense job. Putin and Shoigu have displayed their friendship publicly, filmed for television as they vacationed together in Shoigu’s native Siberia. And at the Russian Security Council meeting in February, Shoigu, whose army numbers around 900,000 active personnel, endorsed the invasion of Ukraine wholeheartedly.

Russian National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov probably has Putin’s greatest trust. Zolotov first met Putin in the early 1990s while working as a bodyguard for Putin’s boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. From 2000 to 2013, he headed the Presidential Security Service, the agency responsible for the president’s personal protection. When Putin created the National Guard in 2016, he placed Zolotov at the helm. The MVD’s internal troops were transferred to this new agency, along with other special forces, giving it a troop strength of around 340,000 and the potential power to keep both the masses and elite in line.

Although Putin seems to have his bases covered, the fates of Beria and Khrushchev have shown that loyalties can shift when the Kremlin is in crisis. Bortnikov could conceivably become another Semichastny and switch camps to save his own skin. Even Shoigu and Zolotov, faced with a coalition of Putin’s opponents, might consider jumping ship, just as Beria’s lieutenants did. But one thing seems certain: Any coup attempt against Putin would probably be the most perilous, high-risk operation in Kremlin history.