A very interesting question was recently asked by a reader of the French Saker Blog, "FD":
Should we expect a coup AGAINST Putin or a coup BY Putin? Given the power of the pro-USA forces at the top political, intellectual, financial and media circles, will Putin not have to make his own "18 Brumaire"?This is a very interesting idea because, in a way, it might appear to be, if not a good solution, then at least a needed one. Clearly, the extremely negative and yet central role played in Russian politics by what I call the "Atlantic Integrationists" is a real threat to Putin and Russia. This "5th column" of saboteurs is even represented in the Medvedev government and they are openly refusing to implement Putin's decrees and decisions. Over and over again we have seen how his decisions are basically ignored by the government and how Putin is trying to reduce their influence but with very limited success. And since the "power ministries" (Military, Internal, FSB, FSO, Justice, Police, Emergencies, etc.) are firmly on Putin's side, why would he not use the latter against the former? In a direct confrontation between "big money" and "big guns", big guns will always win.
Alas, this is not that simple.
The first thing to remember here is that the real power base of Putin are not the "power ministries" but the 80%+ of people who support him. That support is not unconditional, however. There are already reports that it has already taken a slide down (by a few points only) because of the economic problems. And Russians have a very bad recollection of the GKChP coup in 1991 or the bloody mess in 1993. Furthermore, there are a number of key achievements which the vast majority of Russians do not want to give up, including their freedoms of assembly, speech, organization, demonstration and all the other civil and political rights. Oh sure, Russians still like a "strong leader", but they want it to be a strong and legal leader. And for all the often very real nostalgia for the good aspects of the Soviet regime, very few people would truly want a return to the old style authoritarian rule of the CPSU. Of course, if Putin did decide to make a coup against the "Atlantic Integrationists" he could easily explain to the people all the good reasons for doing that, but once the rule of law has been broken, it is very, very hard to re-create it. I think that Putin knows that very well (he has a law degree) and I think that this roots in the KGB make him particularly sensitive to this point (yes, I know, in the West there is this idea that the KGB was above the law, this is not true. The KGB had to act strictly within the Soviet laws).
Again, I will repeat this absolutely crucial fact: the real power base of Putin are not the "power ministries" but the 80%+ of people who support him. Whatever political move he makes, he absolutely needs to have the popular support for it. By the way, he is acutely aware of that. This is why he began his speech to the Federal Assembly this year with the following words:
Today’s address will be related to the current situation and conditions, as well as the tasks we are facing. But before delivering it I’d like to thank all of you for the support, unity and solidarity you have shown during the landmark events that will seriously influence the future of our country.This is quite amazing and very revealing. He could have thanked the Russian military or the "polite armed men in green", but instead if thanked the people for their support which he clearly put as the cornerstone of the Russian successes even in this very difficult year.
This year we faced trials that only a mature and united nation and a truly sovereign and strong state can withstand. Russia has proved that it can protect its compatriots and defend truth and fairness.
Russia has done this thanks to its citizens, thanks to your work and the results we have achieved together, and thanks to our profound understanding of the essence and importance of national interests. We have become aware of the indivisibility and integrity of the thousand-year long history of our country. We have come to believe in ourselves, to believe that we can do much and achieve every goal.
Big guns are powerful, but crude instruments. Yes, the Russian military could obliterate the Ukrainian military and take Kiev in just a few days and yes, Putin could easily seize power in Russia and simply fire, or even jail, all the "Atlantic Integrationists". But that would only make things worse and Putin knows that.
Far from being a delusion for naive and Pollyanna-type people, the rule of law - international and national - is crucial for the survival and well-being of a civilized nation. Yes, there are circumstances when a head of state has to give a illegal but vitally needed order, and Putin understands that too, but these have to be the ultimate last resort, something to do only in the most extreme circumstances and kept to a minimum. Putin cannot hope to built a society based on the rule of law while at the same time completely disregarding the Russian Constitution.
One look at the horrors happening in the Ukraine can remind us all, including the Russian people, what can happen once the rule of law is tossed out of the window and replaced by the rule of the gun: utter and complete chaos which will take years, if not decades, to undo.
So no, I don't see Putin engaging on a coup and nor do I have any reasons to believe that a majority of Russian people would welcome that. And I am very happy about this simply because I believe that modern Russia is better than that.