Rumor of the day: Putin worried about a coup?

Rumor of the day: Putin worried about a coup?
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Isn’t he always worried about a coup? Paranoia is practically part of the job description for leading Russia.

This report is an inch thin but it’s easy to imagine why the possibility of Putin being deposed is a bit higher than usual lately.


Make sure to file it under “be careful what you wish for,” though:

The top of Putin’s former employer – the Russian security service FSB – is said to be so frustrated about the lack of military progress in Ukraine that it has reached out to a number of generals and former army officials, according to various analysts and local media reports.

In particular a group called the ‘Siloviki’ – which comprises of former FSB officers who are active in Russian politics – is said to be pushing hard to replace Putin, together with former officers from the GRU, KGB and FSO, other Russian intelligence units.

The idea a coup may be increasingly likely is further strengthened by social media activity across Russia and Eastern Europe, which has gone into overdrive in the last 24 hours…

The Russian president is reportedly “very worried” and has tightened security in and around the Kremlin.

Historically, Russian leaders are never more at risk than when they’re presiding over a military debacle. The growing prospect of Putin foolishly doubling down in Ukraine, either by ordering a full mobilization of the population or going nuclear, might reasonably have led the siloviki to start “considering their options” recently. Remember too that he reportedly fired more than 150 agents of the FSB last month, sending the head of his foreign spy service sent to prison as punishment for bungling the war. A strongman who makes an enemy of Russian intelligence is a strongman who needs to watch his back.

There’s also the question of his health. If his spies and generals fear that Putin’s condition is affecting his decision-making, they have another reason to send him packing.


The Ukrainians are feeding his paranoia too, as the country’s head of military intelligence predicted recently that the war will end with Putin’s death. He won’t retreat, Kyrylo Budanov said of Russia’s leader, but Ukraine will win anyway because Putin now finds himself in a “dead end.” That last part is true, as the Kremlin seems to have run out of good options. Training and equipping Russian citizens under a full mobilization will require time and weapons that Russia doesn’t have. If instead Putin opts to retreat and withdraw, he and the country will be humiliated and the nationalists will call for his head. And if he continues with the forces he already has in the field, he’s staring at a potential debacle.

Read this report of what soldiers from South Ossetia who were sent to support Russian troops in Ukraine told their leader when they returned home:

“Of the 11 days [that we were there,] I wouldn’t even wish on an enemy what happened there. All the equipment didn’t work, I’m telling you straight… There was no command staff,” another soldier told the South Ossetian leader…

He said “99 percent of the equipment” in another unit didn’t even work, but when the troops warned the senior in command that their vehicles didn’t work and their guns “did not fire,” he shrugged it off and said to just “go like that.”

In another case, troops complained of their commander “disappearing” every time fighting started.

“He was afraid of his own men. He made himself a security team out of a few of the guys. The commander refused to come out and talk to his own guys and was saying that he’d be beaten,” one soldier said.


If those problems are widespread, it would explain why the Russian advance in the Donbas has been “anemic” and “minimal at best,” with reports of Russian troops advancing a few miles and then withdrawing to let the Ukrainians retake that territory. Maybe they’re out of gas logistically and morale has collapsed amid a leadership vacuum.

One South Ossetian soldier allegedly said that he expected Russia to lose the war.

But again, we should be careful what we wish for. There have been reports lately that Russia’s battlefield setbacks haven’t convinced military veterans that the war is hopeless and that it’s time to withdraw. To the contrary, some have accused Putin of fighting with one hand behind his back, urging him to … commit more war crimes in Ukraine, I guess, to show those Nazis who’s boss. Russian state media has descended into shrieking about humiliation at NATO’s hands and fantasizing about using their nuclear equalizer. If in fact Putin were to be killed or ousted, it’s conceivable that whoever replaces him won’t give the order to retreat but rather will escalate.

Maybe more than conceivable. The new leader of Russia would want to prove his toughness to his constituents and show the west that he’s not to be trifled with right out of the gate, no?

Tom Nichols has worried for weeks that things going badly for Russia in Ukraine makes an attack on NATO more likely, not less. That’s counterintuitive since a country that’s bitten off more than it can chew in attacking the Ukrainians should hardly consider taking a bite out of Uncle Sam too. But from the standpoint of national pride, it’s easier to explain losing to NATO than losing to a much smaller “peasant nation” which the Kremlin insists isn’t even a proper country. Putin’s replacement might find that logic appealing.


Whatever happens, there are no truly good alternatives left for Russia even if they rid themselves of their mad tsar. They can start a war with NATO and take the consequences. They can plow ahead against Ukraine with the men they already have in the field and likely fail. They can mobilize the population to become cannon fodder and watch their economy grind to a halt as their casualties skyrocket. Or they can admit defeat and withdraw, relegating themselves to “lesser power” status internationally for the foreseeable future.

Or, I guess, they can go nuclear. Stay tuned.

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