Russia collapse or coup against Putin: what scenario is more likely?

The invasion of Ukraine and the cruel and disastrous war will almost certainly end in defeat for Russia. It is only a matter of time. The loss will cause severe consequences that can cause the fall of Putin’s regime and even lead to a total collapse of the Russian Federation. Disputes have already emerged among Russian elites on the background of defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine, unpopular mobilization, harsh economic sanctions by the West, and further isolation of Russia on the international scene. 

Further successes of the Ukrainian army, backed by Western weapons supplies, will only intensify internal conflicts in Russia. On the other hand, the embargo on Russian oil, which comes into force in December, will impact the Russian economy even more. All of that will lead to one of the two most probable scenarios – state collapse and disintegration or a coup against Putin. 

Mobilization announced by Putin demonstrated his failure

The partial mobilization in Russia announced by Putin has demonstrated an absolute failure of Moscow’s strategy in its war against Ukraine since the invasion in February 2022. After bitter defeats in Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, Putin first delayed proclaiming mobilization because it implies an implicit admission of this failure and the reality that the “special military operation” is a full-fledged war, has failed.

The setback in the Kharkiv region has left Putin in a very fragile state. The Russian government is currently in tremendous danger. It would most likely fall if it suffered another significant loss. Putin’s continued rule would be in jeopardy if Ukraine were to push Russia out of the Kherson region.

Russia will not survive a humiliating defeat 

Russia will not be able to survive a humiliating defeat from its smaller neighbor that it wanted to swallow in three days. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s collapse came shortly after the end of its unsuccessful and unpopular war in Afghanistan.

Social dissatisfaction in Russia will only intensify. This discontent among the Russians is divided by two main feelings: opposition to the war itself and fury at the incompetence of its management by Putin and military commanders.

Russian Federation can implode as a state

If the social tensions mount, even more, Vladimir Putin can lose his hold on power, or the Russian Federation can implode as a state. Putin’s regime was hit by three major miscalculations: overestimation of the strength of the Russian army, the strength of the Ukraine army and the determination of Ukrainians, and the unity of the West in its support of Ukraine.

Nuclear blackmail of Russia aims at hiding its weakness

And now, with nuclear blackmail, Moscow threatens Ukraine and the West. Putin’s regime wants to portray strength rather than weakness by banging the nuclear sword progressively louder amid declarations about false flags with Ukrainian “dirty bombs.” However, Ukraine and the West debunked these falsehoods and stated that it’s rather Russia who is preparing a false flag attack to justify an escalation of its aggression.

The collapse of Russia can be violent – Hodges

The possibility that the world will witness the end not only of the Putin regime but also of the Russian Federation as a state is also mentioned by the American general, former commander of the US Army in Europe Ben Hodges in his column on The Telegraph.

Hodges believes that the collapse of Russia may be gradual at the beginning, but then quickly turn into a “rapid, violent, and uncontrollable event”. He says that the West needs to prepare for this scenario, so that the collapse of Russia, like the collapse of the USSR over 20 years ago, does not bring instability to geopolitics.

The US General sees at least three factors that can lead to the collapse of Russia. The first is the undermining of domestic confidence in the Russian army, which always was the basis of the Kremlin’s legitimacy. The Russian army is humiliated in Ukraine, and men in Russia avoid mobilization and flee abroad. The increased recruitment among ethnic minorities intensified the internal tensions.

The second factor is the continuously growing damage to the Russian economy. New sanctions against Moscow and its gas and oil industries are devastating, and the loss of energy markets is irreversible.

The third factor, according to Hodges, is the low population density in Russia. Despite its territory being 70 times the size of the UK, its population is only twice bigger. Now that the metropolis is in a weak position, and ethnically different regions become unhappy with the entire economic situation, any sense of national identity could quickly deteriorate. This could lead to uprisings and ‘empire’ collapse. 

The collapse of Putin’s regime is the more plausible scenario – Treisman

A total collapse of the Putin regime is a more plausible scenario than an armed uprising by disgruntled Russian generals or a mutiny by Kremlin elites, according to the American political scientist Daniel Treisman, who wrote an article on this matter for Foreign Affairs.

Treisman notes that defeat in war “is rarely a good career move”: history remembers many dictators who were “trapped” in a war that began as a “short and victorious offensive”.

However, failures on the frontlines do not always doom dictators to overthrow. Political scientists Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans analyzed all wars from 1919 to 2003 and found that defeat in war increases the probability of a violent overthrow of the dictator. Moreover, in just over half of the cases dictator’s rule lasted at least a year after the war ended.

Conflicts between Russian elites have started

Putin has not yet lost the war against Ukraine, but it has already spoiled the relations with the politicians from his entourage. Looking for a justification, the Russian president shifted the blame for the failed invasion to the FSB. Meanwhile, his close allies Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner private army Yevgeny Prigozhin blamed the failures on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Conflicts between clans and warlords close to Putin intensified. 

Probability of a coup against Putin

Several analysts have suggested that a coup by the Russian army or security services is probable, but there are too many obstacles for such a scenario. Putin has equipped his system with numerous safeguard measures. Several agencies keep an eye on each other, from the FSB and the GRU military intelligence to the Federal Guard Service and the Russian National Guard. Within the FSB, frequent prosecutions for corruption or treason have created an atmosphere of distrust.

Kadyrov or Prigozhin can both put pressure on Putin but are not likely to stage a coup against him. Both have low popularity among elites and are dependent on Putin. They have few friends and many enemies among the elites, including the military.

There is no real chance of a coup by relatively moderate political forces in the regime. True opposition was eliminated years ago, with Boris Nemtsov killed in Moscow, while puppet opposition parties were never fully independent, and they would not dare to stage a coup against Putin.

A coup against Putin could also be not violent and exposed to the public. Instead, a delegation of influential figures would visit Putin and advise him that to keep the regime intact, he must resign in exchange for assurances of immunity from prosecution and security. Similar events occurred in 1999 when Yeltsin passed power to Putin.

A change of leadership could cause a conflict between the elites, political chaos, and a significant weakening of the central state. Russian politicians who attempted such a move would be taking a huge risk not only for themselves personally if the move failed but also for the Russian state overall.

The scenario of the implosion of the Russian Federation

With several obstacles to a coup, and time and ongoing Ukraine war playing against Russia, Putin’s government is more susceptible than ever to a more probable threat – an implosion of the Russian Federation. A paralyzing meltdown as mounting crises exceeds the Kremlin’s ability for decision-making. That could cause a total inability of the center to govern far regions. The system’s intrinsic flaws are being exacerbated by the war, pushing it closer to disintegration.

Putin’s 22-year political command structure has significant flaws. The Kremlin’s decision-making structure, which is frequently referred to as the “vertical of power,” has been built in a pyramid form, where all lines of authority descend from Putin’s office. That implies that every significant issue must be resolved at the top. Although Putin does not make all of the decisions, he tries to manage all the priority topics – war, sanctions, etc. However, due to developments outside of his control, he has started to lose control over the whole situation. And it cannot pass unnoticed by the elite and clans close to him.

A centralized system fails in times of war

A centralized system can work well in normal times, but when serious problems quickly appear, the “decision-making center” becomes overloaded very fast. And that inevitably leads to cascading errors. In wartime, Putin must simultaneously deal with battlefield setbacks, conflicts between elites, severe economic problems, social unrest, and mobilization anxiety in society.

Another weakness of the system is Putin’s authoritarian regime. It requires that the ruler must always show power and strength. Both, in internal issues, and foreign policy. Like most authoritarian regimes, Putin relies on loyal elites who are driven by fear and corruption rather than conviction. However, with the regime losing control over the situation in the country, this power has diminished. At the same time, in foreign policy, very few countries still listen to Russia’s claims and believe its propaganda. The aggressor state is condemned by the West, the EU, the US, the UN, and the OSCE. 

In this light, Moscow doesn’t have the same influence as before the all-out war and defeats. It cannot pass unnoticed by the elites. The power and the fear fade, which can lead to a coup, or at least to inaction and defection. 

New losses on the battlefield, for example in Kherson, will exacerbate the conflict between Russian elites and will lead to dismissals, and too harsh economic times with non-payment of pensions and wages, sparking wide protests. Local protests are difficult to manage, and they can quickly spread to various regions. It will surely influence opinion within the political elite and security services, undermining morale.

The propaganda machine acknowledges defeats

A sign of change – losses were acknowledged by the Russian propaganda machine. A dramatic Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region incited a chorus of enraged condemnation of Russia’s military commanders for weeks on the uncensored Telegram channels of hard-line nationalists and Russian military bloggers. The information spread. The Russian media propaganda machine, that Putin built over the past 23 years, had to admit failures and launch some criticism towards the commanders. 

After the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin approved legislation that, by prohibiting “discrediting the armed forces,” frequently criminalizes independent reporting on the war (officially called in Russia “a special military operation”) as well as criticism. That coincided with the shutdown of some independent media outlets, including the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Even social media platforms and online tools like Facebook, Twitter, and VK have been regulated or censored. The Telegram chat app, however, has not been blocked by Russian authorities. As a result, there has been a flood of comments and debates about how poorly the war is going for Russian troops.

Tensions between Kadyrov and army commanders

The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been even more vocal in his criticism of the Russian military leadership. He accused the commander of the army group “Center” of the Russian forces, the general-colonel Alexander Lapin, of failing to provide sufficient communications and supplies. Kadyrov also urged for more extreme actions, such as the use of a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

This critique was promptly echoed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the notorious private military company Wagner known for his close ties to the Kremlin. The criticism also comes as many Russians are becoming more concerned about the war in Ukraine, particularly in light of Putin’s sudden decision to call up hundreds of thousands of reserve troops and other citizens to fight. Many Russian men have fled the country to avoid being mobilized and sent to an almost certain death.

Budanov foresees a civil war in Russia

According to the head of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov, there are two scenarios for how this war will end for Russia: “The first is the division of Russia into several independent states. And the second is the relative preservation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation with the change of leadership. In the latter case, the new leader will claim that Russia has nothing to do with the war and all the crimes, that it was a sick dictator’s fault”. It’s fair to say that previous Budanov’s predictions tend to be accurate.

Russian state collapse happened in history

The probability of Putin’s regime collapse is proven by the fact that a fall of an empire with the center in Moscow did happen before. The sudden collapse of the Russian state was seen twice. First, was the revolution of 1917, when the First World War’s pressures and the czar’s frailty led to the total collapse. The Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg) conscripts supported the bread workers’ revolt. Nicholas II resigned as king after everyone turned against him. The old society, economy, army, and state all died after the monarchy was overthrown. 

Tzar empire collapse 

The Russian Empire broke up into various pieces. Vladimir Lenin’s fringe Bolshevik party crushed competitors in the civil war saddled the revolution and pieced together the bulk of the empire to become the Soviet Union. With a terror regime that claimed millions of lives, the Soviet state was solidified. Another world war broke out, and then the Cold War lasted for many years.

Soviet Union collapse

And it happened for the second time. Unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev instituted reforms, which led to the collapse of the communist system, and the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. The final Soviet leader refrained from using force to maintain the system and the state out of concern for the outbreak of fresh turmoil and civil war. The USSR split up into 15 states. A group of pro-Western politicians and economists around Boris Yeltsin strove to build a democratic Russia. But it was hit by economic disasters, crime, and ethnic violence. In the end, Vladimir Putin used this as a launching pad to come to power and install a dictatorship.

The fall of the USSR in 1991 was seen as a turning point in world affairs. The problem is that no one foresaw the collapse of the USSR. Now the collapse of another Moscow regime is more than expected, and there is much more ground for this development compared to the situation in the USSR in 1990-91.

More generally, simultaneous national events and revolutions led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the former USSR republics of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Central Asia all opting for independence over being a member of the Soviet Union.

There are no other credible options for Putin because of the way political power is built in Russia. He created a cult of strong leaders. And it’s hard to imagine for Russians, a state without him. And there isn’t a patrilineal succession plan in place, and nobody in his circle can emerge as a substitute. When analysts talk about successors, names like Nikolai Patrushev and Sergei Sobyanin are mentioned. However, each of them has either enraged Putin or has struggled to unite the many clans.

Ethnic tensions in Russia

Russia’s war against Ukraine has widened rifts between the privileged Russian political core and its ethnically concentrated periphery, making it less certain that Russia would remain viable as a state after the final defeat.

Minorities in Russia tend to be overrepresented in the military given their relative poverty. We have seen that the ethnic groups with the poorest population in Russia, the Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush, Buryats, and Tuvans, have suffered a disproportionate number of casualties in the war in Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s effort to recruit an extra 300,000 soldiers for the war in Ukraine was similarly discriminatory. People from Moscow and St.Petersburg are more protected, while people living in Russia’s periphery are being used as cannon fodder.

Putin increased the likelihood of a scenario with a state collapse – Zubok 

A professor of history at the London School of Economics, and author of the book “The Fall of the Soviet Union”, Vladislav Zubok, writes that by undermining Russian constitutional institutions and norms, Putin increased the likelihood of a scenario with a state collapse, by encouraging indifference, cynicism, and mistrust in Russian society. The political future of Russia is gloomy due to cowed billionaires, puppet parties, fragmented and corrupt bureaucracies, and the obedient Orthodox Church. Thus, the current Russian state is probably much more vulnerable than the late Soviet rule, he concludes. Additionally, there are warlords (Prigozhin, Kadyrov) standing by with their armies.

If and when Russia collapses, what will happen? 

It is quite improbable that there will be a soft collapse like in the case of the Soviet Union. At the time Mikhail Gorbachev took steps to reduce the likelihood of a violent catastrophe, giving authority to parliamentary bodies and state leaders, and promoting the upholding of the law. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the change was handled. On the contrary, in Putin’s regime, such change is difficult. 

The likelihood of a hard collapse of Russia is much higher. And it increases as long as the war in Ukraine continues. If Russia breaks up, then the North Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya) and the Far East are the most probable locations for movement toward the sovereignty of Russian regions. There were protests against Putin’s mobilization in these regions. China may, in the light of such developments, claim Siberia and the Far East.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been one of Putin’s most ardent allies, but his recent declarations once more highlight Putin’s vulnerability. Beyond Putin, Kadyrov doesn’t have many friends in Moscow, and he has emerged as one of the country’s most vocal critics of the military establishment. Kadyrov would be exceedingly challenging to manage should Putin leave the political scene. He has his private army (the Kadyrovtsy, who participated in the war in Ukraine). Kadyrov might be encouraged to take advantage of a power vacuum by aiming for greater independence.

Multi-ethnic makeup will break up

As we can see, despite Russia’s multi-ethnic makeup, ethnic identities and conceptions of nationhood still exist, and they will become much more relevant in times of crisis. In this context, we see the rise of initiatives like the Free nations of Russia forum. They target a reconstruction of Russia, in the form of independent nation-states, in the post-Putin era. 

In the next few years, it will be highly probable to observe the process of the disintegration of Russia into several parts. In its place will appear several new free states, such as Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and more. 

On the other hand, Putin’s successor is likely to hold him personally responsible for the war in Ukraine and all the catastrophes. However, the new leadership would face mounting pressure from nationalist hardliners to proclaim full-scale mobilization and escalate the conflict. This might cause the war to spread outside of Ukraine.

The danger of a bloody scenario

Since there is no certainty that a possibly bloody scenario could be avoided, the collapse of Russia would likely be more destructive than the fall of the Soviet Union, which transformed the map of Eurasia. The likelihood of a Russian collapse increases the longer the Ukrainian war lasts.

In this context, the world should be concerned as it is crucial to global security. The Russian Federation is a nuclear superpower with 6,000 nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic. So, the Western leaders, but also China, should take action to avoid a worst-case scenario, and ensure a “controlled” collapse reducing the damage to other nations.

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