As Russia’s ‘military operation’ in Ukraine drags on, with no credible signs of success, intelligence agencies, former Kremlin insiders, journalists, academics are all rushing to understand the inner workings of the black box of Putin’s siloviki and identify signs of cracks, leaks, rifts and rivalries.
The US and UK intelligence reveal that Putin has been misinformed by his advisors, that tension has been growing between him and the Minister of Defence, and that senior intelligence chiefs have been placed under house arrest. Putin has clearly overestimated Russia’s capabilities and underestimated the resolve of the West to unite and enforce sanctions as well as the ability of Ukraine to offer resistance.
Based on pointers that not all is well within Putin’s inner circle, all major media outlets have run stories assessing the probabilities of a coup by peering at the career paths of Putin’s siloviki circles. The question then is: can the siloviki top command still be expected to remain unified, fully under Putin’s control at the time of crisis and isolation? As he struggles to bring his ‘military operation’ to a successful end will Putin shift blame on his close military and security associates and begin a purge? How likely is a coup by his close henchmen, given reports of Putin’s increasing isolation from his inner circle and rumours of his frail health?
Sacking and sidelining of close associates
The disappearance from public view of defence minister Sergey Shoigu, a close buddy of Putin who was often touted as a potential successor, along with the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov suggests a rift between Putin and the military and defence establishment. Unverified reports said that Shoigu suffered a heart attack following a scathing attack by Putin for the successive military failures. His brief reappearance after 12 days of absence, with video footage showing him attending a meeting of Putin’s security chiefs over Zoom and subsequent video clips had foreign media scrutinizing the footage for fake content.
An Internet search yields no trace of Gerasimov’s recent activities or appearances. But then the Russian Chiefs of General Staff have never been in public limelight. Several generals have reportedly been sacked and others have fallen out of favour.
Who could initiate a coup?
While Shoigu is not in limelight, he has not fallen out of favour. Christo Grozev of the investigative agency Bellingcat reports that Shoigu and other senior military officers are likely leading war efforts from a nuclear bunker in the Ural mountains in Siberia.
Putin’s survival hinges on the unwavering support of his closest allies in the intelligence circles: Sergei Naryshkin, head of the foreign intelligence service, head of the FSB internal security service Alexander Bortnikov, head of the State Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. The public dressing down subjected to him by Putin suggests that Naryshkin may be the least plausible of all to challenge Putin. Given his long Kremlin service, the FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov is regarded as the most loyal and capable of Putin’s aides among the siloviki. Bortnikov was part of the Siberian hunting trip with Putin and his minister of defense, Sergey Shoigu. Ukrainian sources speculate that Bortnikov may be masterminding a plot with other siloviki to overthrow Putin.
While Bortnikov is touted as being ‘more’ pro-West, Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council and a former FSB is described as a leading ideologue of anti-Westernism in Russia. Russian security expert Mark Galeotti describes him as ‘hawk’s hawk.’ Trying to guess who may be ‘more’ liberal and who is the ‘most’ hawkish figure is a pointless exercise. It is because these positions are postures, devoid of ideological beliefs, values, or persuasion. As the political analyst Ekaterina Shulman noted, the hawkish of all hawks at the moment is the man himself.
Secret agents, without a public face
Even if we assume that Putin is exceedingly isolated, gravely ill, or has become a danger to his innermost circle, the question then is: how are the different individuals or factions going to coordinate efforts and devise a collective strategy in a system of multiple chain of command resembling the Stalinist chekist system with each agency monitoring the other and snitches passing on the information to the top?
None of the spies in the siloviki grouping has a credible public image, popular base, and connection with society given the secretive nature of their work. Nor do they have the capability to build an independent power base through networks and run election campaigns. The siloviki – ‘strongmen’ – in reality, are rather weak.
Putin has long coup proofed his regime. The primary responsibility for protecting Putin and other top leadership rests with the Federal Protective Service (FSO) which also monitors the military alongside FSB military counterintelligence with carefully screened infantry units guarding the Kremlin.
Since the Covid lockdown, Putin has sealed himself in germ-free settings and had been seen donning a hazmat suit when out of his secret bunker. The maintenance of at least 10-metre distance has become a popular meme while also revealing fears of being poisoned, stabbed or harmed. Nobody has direct access to him as he decides who he wants to see and when.
Putin: Too popular to fail?
The reality is that Putin’s inner circle remains intact. Notwithstanding his isolation, prolonged stays in bunkers, keeping his buddies and guests at least at a 10-metre distance at long tables, Putin has been immensely successful in manufacturing public support. The latest survey by Levada-Centre showed 83 percent of Russians support Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. While the framing of questions, methodology and sample selection remains deeply flawed, opposition media analysts confirm that Russian political elites, bureaucracy and even business are coalescing around Putin, resigned to living under isolation and hardships for now. His innermost circle is like those who have little choice but to go along with an enigmatic captain of a submarine able to manoeuvre the buoyant force to keep it afloat…until the supplies and air run out.
Dr Bhavna Davé is a Senior Lecturer in Central Asian Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies. She specialises in issues of ethnic relations, identity politics and political transition in Central Asia.