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What did Putin do to ensure that he doesn't get overthrown by a military coup or to reduce the likelihood of it?

https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2022-05-25/new-punishments-await-russian-defectors-as-putin-grows-alarmed-over-ukraine

Several Kremlin watchers familiar with inner workings in Moscow tell U.S. News the introduction of the bill reflects growing concern among Russian elites of the rates of defectors on the battlefield in Ukraine, along with reports that hundreds are volunteering to join specialized units in the Ukrainian army composed of disaffected Russian citizens.

There's increased defection and the number of discontent people is growing. I am thinking it should raise alarm and the elites are considering that there's also a risk of a military coup happening.

Now, I am wondering what the Russian elites did to prevent that from happening, and in general what might be the steps usually taken to remedy a similar situation.

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    Why must he has done something? Is the normal working of the Russian security apparatus not intimidating enough? In your quote there is only report about a "growing concern". But that doesn't mean that some action must have performed, or does it?
    – Trilarion
    Jun 29 at 16:34
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    Typical things you'd do to avoid coups are: appoint only very trusted and rewarded officers to capital district locations, get the military nice perks and shiny toys, rotate officers frequently from units, make some examples, reinforce your own security staff, use spies and informers, add agents provocateurs to get conspirators to show themselves... But I am unsure battlefield defections have much in common with palace coups, at this stage. Jun 29 at 18:03
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    "There's increased defection and the number of discontent people is growing" sounds like the narrative that Western media peddle non-stop for 4 months now, which should make you question its validity (if discontent would grow monotonously shouldn't it be visible by now?)
    – alamar
    Jun 29 at 19:47
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    @alamar to be fair, there is also no lack of reporting in Western media that Putin has seen a surge in popularity since the start of the "special military operation". But, yes, wishful thinking on Putin getting the boot anytime soon. Jun 29 at 23:10
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5 Answers 5

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The President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin protected himself against the possibility of a military coup or a popular uprising by a combination of measures:

  • FSB (formerly KGB) officers stationed throughout the military observe and report on the suspicious activity in the army ranks.
  • Russian National Guard ("Rosgvardiya") is separate from the military. It purpose is thought to be protection of Putin.
  • Putin's approval ratings are high and the percent of dissenters is low for a popular uprising to be successful.
  • FSB and Rosgvardiya are active not only in the military, but also throughout the general population, effectively suppressing dissent among in the population.
  • Russia historically had a very low rate of successful coups, especially in the periods of strong government and suppression of the freedoms, such as at present.

REFERENCES:

To prevent a military coup, Putin has created a system that inhibits coups and provides him personal protection. First, F.S.B. agents stationed throughout the Russian military observe and report on dissent throughout the ranks. Consequently, Russian military officers are unable to confidently approach others about anti-Putin sentiment or actions, making the planning and formation of a secret coup very difficult and easy for Putin to discover and punish. If discovered, Putin would then most likely make a public example of the dissenters, further dissuading those questioning his rule to speak up. Second, Putin’s Russian National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, is separate from the military and its de facto purpose is believed to be to protect him in the event of a violent uprising. The F.S.B. and the Rosgvardiya work congruently to shield Putin from the threat of a military coup, making one extremely unlikely. As such, many have hoped that the latest round of protests against Putin’s actions would turn into a mass uprising against the autocratic government.

However, despite protests across Russia, a successful mass uprising against the Russian government remains improbable for three primary reasons. First, according to the ‘3.5% rule’ formulated by Professor Erica Chenoweth, 3.5% of Russia’s population would have to participate in a nonviolent uprising for meaningful regime change in Russia to occur. Although tens of thousands of Russians have been protesting, that number is nowhere near the necessary five million that would be needed to create change in Russia. Second, the F.S.B and the Rosgvardiya are also both used by Putin to stamp out public dissent, making popular uprising more difficult and costly. Finally, the third reason why a mass uprising in Russia is unlikely comes from Russian culture and history.

Although the U.S. looks at Russia and sees an autocracy under the guise of democracy, many Russians see their government in a different light. To them, Putin represents strength and stability to many Russians, especially because his rise to power coincided with the end of the chaos of the 1990s. Moreover, Russia and the Soviet Union were historically ruled by authoritarians, making Russian citizens more comfortable with the idea of a strong central ruler, like Putin. Consequently, more Russians support Putin than many Americans might think, indicated by the fact that his high approval rating has even increased following the invasion of Ukraine. However, this increase could be attributed to the fact that many critics of the regime have left the country since the invasion, thereby increasing the proportion of Putin-supporters in the country. Moreover, Russians have a different understanding of democracy than Americans and therefore do not feel as if Putin is an autocratic dictator. Although many Russians say they support democracy, they tend to think that democratic values such as freedom of the press or the separation of church and state are not important, making Putin’s limitations on these freedoms insignificant.

Why Regime Change in Russia is Unlikely. By Vanessa Smith-Boyle. Jun 08, 2022: https://www.americansecurityproject.org/why-regime-change-in-russia-is-unlikely/


Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia’s Tartu University [...] also believes that a coup is unlikely. The political system remains internally stable, and the economy has so far suffered less than expected, he said.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has prompted the population’s consolidation around the Kremlin, and many people blame economic and other problems on the West rather than on Putin, Sazonov said.

He also argued that the political system encourages the appointment of incompetent and loyal people - ones who are unlikely to organize a coup.

“The whole political system has been built in order to prevent a coup,” Sazonov said.

The Russian army, in contrast with Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht, is incapable of organizing a coup d’etat, he said. Both the Soviet and Russian authorities have avoided appointing independent, ambitious and competent people to the military due to the fear that the army could overthrow the government, Sazonov argued.

A coup against Putin: Wishful thinking or a real possibility? By Oleg Sukhov. April 5, 2022: https://kyivindependent.com/national/a-coup-against-putin-wishful-thinking-or-a-real-possibility

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    To add to this, I have friends in Russia who protested in the past 5+ years ago. Because of this they are not allowed to have bank accounts and their pension is cut off, they cannot leave because their passports are revoked. They were never tried or jailed, merely identified at the protest. It's hard for us to understand in the west, but merely speaking out has massive consequences.
    – user35939
    Jun 30 at 1:45
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    @gbeeduljqa: I wish your friends only the best! They are brave people, and I respect and admire them. Jun 30 at 2:01
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    Yep, I speak to a fair few russian millenials on twitter, and they are all afraid as hell of protest. I've said that hey, just reach out, people will help them with legal costs if they get in trouble (I sure will, I really believe the way out of this stupid war is to support russian peace people. The lesson of vietnam is strong here) but they are all pretty adamant that the sort of trouble protesters get in is beyond the reach of lawyers. Thats a bad situation.
    – Shayne
    Jun 30 at 12:50
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    All that really means is that the level of actual dissent is unknown. It's like saying "the number of people who enjoy ice cream is very low" because any one who is known to like ice cream is punished. Percentage of dissenters against Putin is actually an unknown number because dissenters are suppressed. Which, historically speaking, is a tactic that works great until the day it doesn't.
    – JamieB
    Jun 30 at 18:42
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    @JamieB: The percent of the Russian population who disagree with Putin is unknown, but most sources agree that it is low. The various poll numbers support that, as does my own personal experience on the Russian-speaking social media (apparently, people get to the banned social media by VPN). Jun 30 at 19:35
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The question mentions "military coup", but traditionally in Russia (including the Soviet and pre-Soviet times), the military didn't play a significant political role, despite its might. Unlike some other countries (e.g. Turkey, Pakistan, much of Latin America), the army has never been a political actor. This is not just because of the 'watchful eye' of FSB/KGB/etc. (mentioned in Timur's answer), but partly due to the fact that the army has never been a career growth refuge for the smart/educated/ambitious/secular/etc. people, given the difficulty of 'normal' political career (as often happened in those other countries).

And at the top level, any commander showing any signs of independence (e.g. Zhukov) was (and is) quickly replaced.

So, we should broaden the question a bit to include any coup, and most importantly an inter-elite one.

For the coup to happen (let alone be successful), there is a simple necessary condition: the people (whether elite or populace) must realise that they stand to gain more than they lose from the regime change. In a nutshell, Putin created a situation where this condition is not satisfied, particularly for the elite.

Practically the entire political elite owe their wealth and position to the current regime (if not Putin personally). They will only lose from a change. This was reinforced after (and just before) the current war by making the elite 'burn the bridges' and openly declare support, often with escalating vicious rhetoric. There is just no way back.

(There is a somewhat similar situation in North Korea in this regard: the elite (as well as local business, which exists!) actively support the current regime, even if they understand its deficiency. They just realise they stand no chance in case of regime collapse.)

As for the general population, there are several factors. One is, of course, the increasingly repressive environment (the entire internal army, Rosgvardiya, was created specifically to quash any internal dissent). But there is also an ever-increasing share of population directly dependent on the federal budget money (from teachers to military production to the swelled bureaucracy) who, again, stand to lose from change (at least in the short term).

A particularly important sub-section of these people are all the forces (police, FSB, all kinds of military: Siloviki). Apart from swelling their numbers, they were made a truly privileged class: relatively decent pay, very early retirement (at the time when the retirement age is increasing for everyone else), certain immunity from abuse... They stand to lose the most, and will defend the regime in earnest. This is a typical tactics of similar regimes (cf. Venezuela) and is quite effective.

Finally, there is a true belief amongst ordinary people that coups and revolutions always end in turmoil and grief. Russia is quite a survivalist country and doesn't favour radical changes in general.

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  • The "world values" map (survivalist vs self expression axis) is interesting, but... Morocco appears twice in it.
    – berdario
    Jul 1 at 22:25
  • @berdario, good catch. Matching with the previous map, the bottom-left position seems to be true. The other instance could be Bahrain...
    – Zeus
    Jul 4 at 0:33
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Russia is not really big on military coups.

There was a coup of 1917 (February revolution) which has caused horrible failure of the whole Russian state and the fate of all the military (generals) who participated in that coup was quite grim - they were universally fired by the provisional government then got to shoot each other during the civil war.

There was an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1991 (ГКЧП). This one attempted to counter regime change.

There also was a successful coup in which Paul I was killed. I'm not sure how Paul I compares with Putin, but 1801 was quite long ago.

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  • There was even an other successful coup relative short time befor in which also the father of Paul I Peter was killed.
    – convert
    Jun 29 at 21:07
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    "Russia is not really big on military coups." I was about to ask incredulously "So are there countries that are big on military coups?" until I realized there are probably several good examples :-) Now I want to ask "Which countries are 'biggest on military coups'?" (Wikipedia's List of coups and coup attempts by country is substantial, but need a "military" filter)
    – uhoh
    Jun 29 at 21:33
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    @uhoh Countries in Latin America a famos for their coups.
    – convert
    Jun 29 at 21:41
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    @uhoh Shure Thailand is famous for it coups, but there is posibly a definition problem, since all that coups have never afected the ruling monarcy.
    – convert
    Jun 29 at 21:50
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    Ousting of Khruschev could be counted as a 'successful' coup.
    – Zeus
    Jun 30 at 0:57
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Russia has almost no history of coups, only a few over the course of hundreds of years. And those happened when the army had decided that the leader was too weak.

Back in 2014 when Putin rejected supporting the rebels in Ukraine after a coup in that country and there were people demanding that he start a war over this (it was the most popular tag in social networks), yep, this question could have made sense. But nowadays? Pointless. But this is only about theory.

In reality there exists in Russian society a global consensus that the coup of 1917 and the exit from the USSR in 1991 both cost Russia too much: dozens of millions of lives. In the 1990s Russia lost over 13 million of its former populace who now lived under the rulership of different countries as a result of the breakup of the USSR, because without letting those 13 million go live under a different country’s rulership, even more people would have actually died throughout the other now-former Soviet republics. De-facto modern Ukraine is the result of those events in the 90s — the typical process of breaking up any huge country, just as has always happened historically. And the many wars that happened in 90s in the rest of the former Soviet republics are also the result of that dissolution.

So nowadays any idea of chaos within the country of Russia (a coup necessarily always means widespread chaos) is perceived by its citizens as nothing less than a personal assassination attempt (because it is clear that any coup would result in the deaths of millions), and all former coups in the country’s history are condemned. As example popular idea is that if the February 1917 coup (when the Army and the nationalists overthrew the tsar) had not taken place, nowadays there could have been over 500 million Russians. With people having now the idea of such an experience, it is impossible for them to even imagine such a scenario as a coup.

As for the article which you mention — when have they ever predicted reality about Russia? Right, never. Typical military propaganda. The article describes ordinary things, as for example in the United States it can be a life sentence or even execution. So what? As I said, typical propaganda.

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    Can you include a reference for "In 1990s Russia lost over 13 million people as result of dissolve"? I found this reference that mentions between 3-7 excess deaths following the Soviet Union collapse.
    – Alexei
    Jul 1 at 6:42
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    "nowadays it could be over 500 million of Russians." How is that possible when Russia only has a population of 143 million?
    – Philipp
    Jul 1 at 11:09
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    @Philipp, one of the twists is that in that case "Russians" would mean "subjects of the Russian Empire"... And then, in this model, there would be no WWII (at least, not with such consequences for Russia), no Holodomor, etc. But even then it's a highly dubious estimation.
    – Zeus
    Jul 1 at 14:07
  • @Philipp By Russia is meaned not todays Russia, but The Russian Empire, which is much biger. So it´s the former USSR, Finland and part of Poland we are tallking about.
    – convert
    Jul 1 at 21:29
  • @Alexei I believe that Andrew didn’t mean that 13 million Russian people had actually died in the breakup of the USSR, but rather that that many had “moved” to within some new country’s newly-drawn borders, and so they no longer contributed to the population grand totals of Russia itself. It’s like if all of Siberia were to peaceably secede from Russia, then on paper Russia would suddenly “lose” almost 40 million people, but nobody would have actually died. They would merely stop paying taxes to the government of Russia and start paying them to their new country’s government.
    – tchrist
    Jul 2 at 14:23
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How about starting a war now and then?

  • Military people get their share of recognition, corruption opportunities and career growth
  • Less loyal among them can be intentionally sent to riskier missions with weaker support
  • In war time, the higher ups' actions are questioned less even if these actions don't relate directly to the war (e.g. getting rid of certain people or organizations)

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