The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin doesn’t fear a coup by oligarchs. But he should fear his fellow spies.

Russia’s security services have tried to topple its leaders before

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow in February. Putin probably doesn't fear being overthrown by oligarchs or the people, but the security and military services could threaten him. (Sputnik/Reuters)
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Analysts and Russia watchers are batting about the idea that perhaps Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin has become mentally unstable. They point to ranting speeches where Putin seems to invent history out of whole cloth, or his public and cringeworthy dressing down of one of his intelligence chiefs. Then there are the meme-worthy photos of Putin sitting at the end of ridiculously long tables. Some observe that Putin simply doesn’t look well physically — puffy in the face and less steady on his feet. Speculation suggests that all of this is due to the Russian leader’s increased isolation, his surrounding himself with yes-men, or his angst over the bite of widespread economic sanctions the West and other allies have leveled against him since Russia invaded Ukraine. Others say he is afraid of covid-19 and taking draconian precautions.

Putin is indeed afraid, but not of covid. He fears a coup.

The oligarchs aren’t the ones who would turn on Putin. There is something of a power-sharing agreement between Putin and his oligarchical team, but it is one-sided and mostly economic: Putin allows them to run large moneymaking entities in Russia and abroad, and in return, they help him launder his own funds or assist him for whatever else he deems them useful. But the oligarchs have no direct access to hard power, such as police or other armed security forces in Russia.

Nor will the mythical Russian “man on the street” rise up to dethrone Putin. There are Russians who support Putin’s policies, and others who have simply become politically apathetic. Many believe the state propaganda, which is the only news information most Russians can access. While on occasion Russian citizens do protest — sometime in the thousands and tens of thousands — these demonstrations are always forcefully broken up by police and security forces.

The Kremlin allows protests (which they undoubtedly know about in advance due to intelligence work conducted among protest organizers) so that to Westerners, it appears there may be a bit of freedom of speech in Russia after all. This way, Putin can claim to his Western audience that Russians have a right to express their political views. After the riots are over, though, the protesters are often incarcerated or worse.

The real threat to Putin comes from the siloviki, a Russian word used loosely to describe Russia’s security and military elite. These are people like Nikolai Patrushev, currently the secretary of the Russian security council, and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as other current and former senior security officials.

Men like Patrushev and Bortnikov not only possess hard power, but they know how to use it and are inclined to do so. The FSB includes around 160,000 members of the Border Guard service, as well as thousands of armed personnel with law enforcement authorities. But the strength of the FSB comes not only from its ability to do violence; the organization is also highly secretive. FSB officers are skilled at working clandestinely, keeping their most sensitive operations strictly compartmented to small groups. Putin understands this better than most: He once ran the organization himself.

The siloviki are willing to use this deadly mixture of hard power and secrecy when a serious threat to the Russian kleptocratic system emerges. That’s because the security elite derives their power from the system. The whole operation can flex when threatened; street protests are tolerated to a certain extent, and Russia has withstood lesser Western sanctions in the past. Like branches of an old tree, the kleptocratic autocracy in the Kremlin can withstand the occasional storm, but if the trunk is rotting, the siloviki will take action.

If Russia gets away with using chemical weapons in Britain, what will it try next?

The siloviki are formidable. These are the men who tried to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny; when that failed, they had him imprisoned, seemingly indefinitely. The heads of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, planned and executed the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal using a Russian military-grade nerve agent. Other siloviki planned the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, lacing his tea with polonium in a London hotel. Putin, who reportedly approved these operations personally, is only too familiar with the capabilities of the security elite.

Putin and the siloviki are all Chekists at heart. The Cheka was the first modern iteration of an organization that eventually evolved into the KGB. But the organization’s name or structure is less important than the Chekist mentality, which traces its roots back to Vladimir Lenin and later, Joseph Stalin. Both Soviet leaders were fond of leaning into terror as a methodology for controlling Russia, and this tradition has been passed down from one generation of Chekists to the next. On what used to be called “Chekist Day” in Russia (now called with greater political correctness Security Agency Workers Day), Putin would routinely make celebratory phone calls to the senior leaders in what Russians still refer to as their “special services.”

But what likely has the Russian autocrat losing the most sleep these days (and perhaps acting a bit erratically) is that Putin, who takes the time to study history so as to better distort it, cannot have overlooked the coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. At the time, the Soviet Union was unraveling. Factories were failing because employees simply stopped showing up for work — because their employers had stopped paying them.

More troubling to the security and military elite, the Soviet republics around the perimeter of the state were beginning to break away, declaring autonomy and even independence. The siloviki were witnessing a massive disruption that they feared would lead to the dissolution of the country — and the power they had amassed — as they had known it for decades. Rather than let the system from which they derived power and riches devolve further, they intervened, detaining Gorbachev while he was vacationing at one of his dachas. In the end, the attempted coup was unsuccessful, but it marked the beginning of the end of Gorbachev’s regime — and the entire Soviet Union.

How to read Vladimir Putin

Putin, with his KGB background, must see the obvious parallels. The West, with great unanimity of effort, has imposed crushing sanctions on Russia, and the kleptocratic system is beginning to feel the pressure.

The first to feel the sanctions will be the oligarchs, who have become accustomed over the years to wringing wealth out of Russia by virtue of the sweetheart deals Putin allows for their businesses. Sanctions on these businesses will gut the oligarchs’ wealth. They’ll have a harder time laundering ill-gotten gains, which means it will be harder for oligarchs and their families to enjoy the money they have stolen from the Russian people. They won’t be able to use their personal jets and yachts (several of which have already been seized by Western governments). Europe, the United States, Canada and several Asian democracies will not grant oligarchs visas. The oligarch class will begin to complain — and then to panic.

Ordinary Russians are already beginning to feel the pinch, with reports of credit cards and electronic payment systems not working. Western goods in stores will be harder to come by, and even harder to buy as the ruble loses value. And due to sanctions on Russian airlines, Russian citizens will be severely limited as to where they can travel outside the country (and maybe even inside the huge landmass, as planes will not receive needed parts and maintenance). Normal Russian citizens will begin to complain. Many will take to the streets, as several thousand already have.

Putin will see little threat from either oligarchs or common Russians. He has mechanisms to repress both, and he has done so effectively in the past. No oligarch will forget the fate of Mikhael Khodorskovskiy, who spent 10 years in prison for challenging Putin politically and is now exiled in London.

And all Russian citizens understand, almost at the genetic level, Putin’s ability to inflict terror and death on demonstrators. Russian opposition figures and journalists don’t want to end up like Boris Nemtsov (shot within shouting distance of the Kremlin) or Ana Politikovskaya (shot in the head in her apartment building).

But the siloviki pose a much more serious danger for Putin. If the security elite perceives the system is rotting, they will do what’s necessary to protect their interests. They have weapons and the personnel to threaten Putin. They know how to operate under Putin’s radar, because they are the ones in charge of the radar itself. And while it is reasonable to assume Putin has some means to monitor the siloviki, he will not be able to follow their actions constantly and with great precision, given all the other issues on his plate.

How to prevent nuclear war: Give Putin a way out

The invasion of Ukraine has triggered a withering response that threatens the viability of the Russian state. As in 1991, the country is at grave risk. The siloviki, watching the slow-motion dissolution of the kleptocratic autocracy that has kept them in power for the past three decades, have the ability to end Putin’s regime. They may decide to act.

Putin would do well to remember the words Felix Dzerzinskiy, the brutal head of the Cheka, uttered over 100 years ago: “We stand for organized terror — this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.”

The only question remaining is whether the siloviki consider this to be such a time.

Watch the new short doc about a family’s ordeal to free their loved one from being held hostage abroad

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)