The chances of a popular uprising against the Kremlin remain slim. A recent survey by Russia‘s independent Levada Center shows 83 percent of Russians approved Wladimir Putin‘s performance as president last month, up from 71 percent in February. Most Russians have minimal access to information outside of state propaganda, and anyone daring to take to the streets faces draconian penalties.
The most likely threat to his rule comes from within the regime. Russia’s history offers some insights.
Since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, there have been two successful coups – the overthrow of Stalin’s feared secret police chief Lavrenti Beria in June 1953 and the overthrow of Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 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 was crucial to success.
After Stalin’s death in March 1953, Beria’s colleagues in the presidency, led by Khrushchev, became alarmed at his increasing power and anti-Stalinist policies. However, getting rid of Beria was a challenge, since he headed the powerful Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which united both regular police and security services. The conspirators could count on Soviet military leaders, including Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin and Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who harbored deep hostility towards Beria and the MVD, for assistance 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 a test.
A great danger as they suppressed potential resistance from the Beria camp in the days following his arrest. But they managed – with promises of promotion – to persuade Beria’s two seemingly loyal deputies, Sergei Kruglov and Ivan Serov, to bet their boss and keep rank-and-file MVD officers on the job.
Khrushchev’s downfall eleven years later was an equally dangerous operation for Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues in the Politburo, who had decided that Khrushchev was overstepping the bounds of their collective leadership. Brezhnev was reportedly so scared that his plan would backfire that he had the commander of his personal guard spend nights outside his door. KGB chief Vladimir Semichastny played a crucial role. He met Khrushchev at the airport on his return from vacation and told him he was unemployed. Flanked by KGB guards, Semichastny warned Khrushchev not to resist. Khrushchev, who had appointed Semichastny to his KGB post and regarded him as a close ally, felt deeply betrayed, but he accepted his fate and the transfer of power went 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 allies in all of these institutions. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov is among Putin’s Leningrad/St. Petersburg clan of former KGB officers and is a protégé of Putin and National Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, whom Bortnikov succeeded as FSB chief in 2008. The FSB has its own special forces and a vast network of counterintelligence officers who oversee the military. Though not from St. Petersburg or a KGB veteran, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has worked closely with Putin for years. Shoigu, whose army numbers around 900,000 active soldiers, wholeheartedly supported the invasion of Ukraine. The head of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, probably has Putin’s greatest trust. Zolotov first met Putin in the early 1990s when he was working as a bodyguard for Putin’s boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. From 2000 to 2013 he headed the Presidential Security Service.
Although Putin seems to have his bases firmly in hand, the fates of Beria and Khrushchev have shown that loyalties can shift when the Kremlin is in crisis. Bortnikov could potentially become another semichastny and switch camps to save his own skin. Even Shoigu and Zolotov may consider jumping overboard in the face of a coalition of Putin’s opponents, as did Beria’s lieutenants. But one thing seems certain: any attempted coup against Putin would probably be the most dangerous and risky operation in the Kremlin’s history.
Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history, including: Kill Orders: The Putin Regime and Political Murder
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/greatest-threat-to-putin-comes-from-within-kremlin-41531742.html The biggest threat to Putin comes from the Kremlin