Commentary: Putin and the History of Russian Coups |

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Amy KnightThe Washington Post

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 by Russian independent center Levada shows that 83% of Russians approved of Putin’s performance as president in March, up from 71% 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 penalties.

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

There have been two successful coups since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917: the overthrow of Stalin’s fearsome secret police chief Lavrenty Beria in June 1953 and the ousting of the Communist Party’s first secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1964. Besides the execution of Beria and six of his associates, these beatings were relatively bloodless. In both cases, the support of the security services and the Soviet army was crucial for success.

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After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the other members of the Beria Presidium, led by Khrushchev, became alarmed at his growing power and anti-Stalinist policies. But getting rid of Beria was a challenge, as he headed the powerful Interior Ministry (MVD), which brought together 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 deep animosity towards Beria and the MVD, to help them arrest an unsuspecting Beria in a meeting hastily summoned leadership.

Although the operation was successful – Beria was tried and shot the following December – it was very risky and Khrushchev’s group faced considerable danger as they overpowered potential opposition from Beria’s camp in the days following his arrest. But they succeeded – with promises of promotions – in persuading Beria’s two seemingly loyal deputies, Sergei Kruglov and Ivan Serov, to betray their boss and keep the rank and file officers of the MVD in check.

Ousting Khrushchev 11 years later was an equally perilous 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 terrified that his plan would backfire and the commander of his personal guard would spend nights outside his door with an automatic weapon. And there were hesitations: before agreeing to follow 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 central role. He met Khrushchev at the airport on his return from a Black Sea vacation and informed him that he was unemployed. Flanked by a group of KGB guards, Semichastny warned Khrushchev not to resist. Khrushchev, who had appointed Semichastny to his post in the KGB and considered him a close ally, felt deeply betrayed, but he accepted his fate and the transfer of power went smoothly.

Efforts to overthrow Putin would require the active or passive support of three key organizations: the military, the FSB (successor to the KGB) and the National Guard (“Rosgvardiya”). Putin has strong allies in place in all of these institutions. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov belongs to Leningrad/St. St. Petersburg clan of former KGB officers and is a direct protege of Putin and the head of the National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, whom Bortnikov replaced as head of the FSB in 2008. The FSB has its own special troops and a extensive network of counterintelligence officers to monitor the military.

Although neither from St. Petersburg nor a KGB veteran, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu worked closely with Putin for years, first as Minister for Emergencies and since 2012 in his defense work. Putin and Shoigu have publicly displayed their friendship, filmed for television as they vacationed together in Shoigu’s native Siberia. And at the meeting of the Russian Security Council in February, Shoigu, whose army numbers around 900,000 active men, fully endorsed 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 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 personal protection of the president. When Putin created the National Guard in 2016, he put Zolotov at the helm. The MVD’s internal troops were transferred to this new agency, along with other special forces, giving it a strength of around 340,000 and the potential power to keep both the masses and the elite in line.

Although Putin appears to have his bases covered, the fates of Beria and Khrushchev have shown that loyalties can change when the Kremlin is in crisis. Bortnikov could eventually become another Semichastny and switch sides to save his own skin. Even Shoigu and Zolotov, faced with a coalition of opponents of Putin, 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 and risky operation in the Kremlin’s history.

Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history and politics, most recently “Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.”

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