In the current situation, probability of a coup in Russia is low - Constitutional Protection Bureau

  • 2022-11-24
  • LETA/TBT Staff

RIGA - In the current situation, the probability of a coup in Russia is low, the Constitutional Protection Bureau said in its latest report.

Since February of this year, various assumptions and versions of possible political changes in the Russian power system have been increasingly appearing in mass media, predicting the loss of power of Russian President Vladimir Putin and even Russia’s economic and regional collapse. 

The Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) offers its perspective on these assumptions in this report.

Russia’s political system has long been regarded as being relatively stable. However, the war in Ukraine, in particular its continuation and the resistance of Ukraine and Western nations, has raised tensions not only in society but also among the political elite. Although there are long-term risks involved, the regime is pursuing a variety of strategies to maintain the status quo.

With Vladimir Putin as the clear center of power, the current political system in Russia is the result of more than 20 years of power consolidation. Within the current regime, the President of Russia’s authority stems not only from the broad powers granted to the office in domestic and foreign policy, but also from Putin’s role as a balancer between various political and economic influence and interest groups, with the goal of preventing any group from gaining a dominant position. The system’s influence groups and their relationships are dynamic, and they can compete or cooperate, including forming coalitions, changing their ability to influence policy, the SAB points out.

The Constitutional Protection Bureau says that one of the tasks of the established system is to ensure stability and isolate its leader, Putin, from criticism by portraying him as a successful leader and defender of Russia and its society.

The weak point of the current regime is rapid and systemic instability in a situation where the president is no longer capable, or is viewed as incapable, of fully protecting the interests of the state or influential groups. Operating for a long time in the existing system built around Putin, there are no internal procedures for dealing with the replacement of the current leader, which could lead to a fight over which of the groups will control the presidency, the SAB emphasizes.

Given the narrow circle in which decisions about the invasion and subsequent failures were made, the Russian war in Ukraine puts pressure on V. Putin’s positions and the established system, forcing representatives of several influential groups to express their dissatisfaction with the groups responsible for the war’s course more openly. However, public criticism of V. Putin remains dangerous, despite the fact that some cases have been observed in public.

SAB believes that a revolution is rather unlikely in the current situation. The existing competition and discord between groups, which is associated with political opportunism, occurs within the framework of the established system but does not threaten the existence of the strategic political course or system. 

Currently, elites are attempting to avoid taking responsibility for failures, and proponents of aggressive war are attempting to increase their political capital and influence not only on the battlefield, but also at home. In contrast, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the armed forces have been made the primary scapegoats, weakening their position and making them an appealing target for the ambitions of other opportunists, the SAB points out.

Currently, the elites’ benefit calculations makes rebellion against the regime too risky to justify. To avoid jeopardizing their current positions and access to resources, the elite as a whole is being forced to adapt to the current situation, including by coalescing around Putin, the SAB believes.

A revision of the risk-benefit calculations may be necessary because the elites do not want to be found to be losers as a result of the Russian military’s failure on the battlefield. The actions of the elite may also be influenced by Putin’s rapid deterioration of health, which would impair his ability to lead the country, but there is currently no reason to believe that his health would endanger the regime’s stability, the SAB points out.

In recent years, the Kremlin has taken aggressive measures against political opposition and independent media, severely limiting their ability to participate in decision-making and influence Russia’s strategic course. Domestic political rhetoric frequently includes arguments about Russia’s survival and the fight against Russian traitors. It discourages potential activists from taking action by smearing anyone who opposes the Kremlin’s policies ahead of time. This is demonstrated by the mobilization announced in Russia, which contributes and will contribute to public dissatisfaction as well as socioeconomic tensions in Russia. However, in the absence of opposition leaders and a strong, independent media, Russian society adapts to the situation in order to avoid a regime backlash. As a result, widespread public unrest is not anticipated at this time, though local discontent is sometimes present and cannot be ruled out in the future. One of the reasons why the intelligence and security services have strengthened their domestic political positions against the backdrop of the ongoing war is to ensure public conformity and political apathy, the SAB goes on to say.

Potential political instability also raises the possibility of territorial disintegration of Russia, which is currently regarded as unlikely as well. There are seeds of resistance in certain areas, such as the North Caucasus and the national republics, especially based on ethno-religious differences from Russia as a whole. However, regions of Russia in general are inextricably linked to the state and rely on it, for example, financially and energetically. Significantly, the regions lack the tools and experience of political self-government. The leadership of the regions is subordinate to Moscow, limiting their ability to act autonomously. Demands for autonomy or even independence may arise if Moscow’s position weakens, for example, as a result of internal political struggles, which would also affect the ability of intelligence and security services to control the local population, the SAB goes on to say.

Russia has been able to maintain financial stability so far, owing largely to high energy prices. However, the ongoing need to divert resources to economic stabilization, combined with rising war costs, means that Russia’s spending is beginning to outstrip its revenue. The trend is expected to continue for several years. To compensate, Russia has made savings, and there is also the possibility of mobilizing economic resources. This provides opportunities for Russia to compensate for lost income while jeopardizing the further development of the economy, the SAB highlights.

In general, a change of power in Russia, with Putin losing his position due to illness or a revolution, is unlikely at the moment. The Russian elite has partially gathered around Putin as the guarantor of the current system. Russia’s foreign policy course is unlikely to change as long as the existing Russian political elite remains in place. It will continue to take measures to maintain control over its imaginary sphere of influence, as well as actions to influence the policies of other countries in the direction that Russia desires, the SAB emphasizes.