Russia has been a pariah state on the world stage ever since President Vladimir Putin chose to invade Ukraine in February.
Putin himself might be next.
As the war enters its fourth month, and with sanctions packages slapped on Moscow and Russian troops dying daily in fierce fighting in Ukraine, rumors have bubbled up that Putin’s closest cronies are plotting his ouster. Talk has come and gone that Putin is dealing with health crises and cancer, too.
But Putin’s political future and political viability within Moscow is still up in the air—for now, at least—according to Putin watchers, former senior members of the U.S. intelligence community, and the Biden administration. And it all depends on his next move.
For the time being, Putin has secured a vise-like grip around his inner circle and has begun filtering out those who might seek to undermine his power. He’s pushed out those deemed untrustworthy and placed members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on house arrest. He’s sidelined top Russian officials who have criticized the war, according to British intelligence. Cherry-picking among his closest advisers might temporarily prevent a Putin ouster, according to Ronald Marks, a former CIA clandestine service officer.
“I think he’s OK as long as the siloviki are on his side,” Marks said, referring to members of the elite security services. “And he’s done a nice job of getting rid of those who aren't on his side.”
But service to the Russian government in support of Putin is not guaranteed, according to Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow chief of station.
As soon as his top advisers become dissatisfied with their situation or feel on edge about the war, it’s curtains for Putin. And it’s not going to be pretty.
“Nobody’s gonna ask, ‘Hey Vladimir, would you like to leave?’ No. It’s a fucking hammer to the head and he’s dead. Or it’s time to go to the sanatorium,” Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “They schwack him for it. That’s what they’ll do.”
Three key members of Putin’s inner circle to watch, according to Hoffman, include Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of Putin’s Security Council; Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB; and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Even watching those three, predicting Putin’s political future—and particularly trying to get inside his head to determine what his plans are—is impossible. But the writing is on the wall. Vladimir Lenin died. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted. Leonid Brezhnev died. Mikhail Gorbachev was booted in a surprise ouster. The list goes on.
“They either drop dead in office or someone comes knocking on the door and says, ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, guess what, it’s time to go. You’re gonna love that dacha down there,’” Marks said.
And while Putin’s pared down his inner circle, if Russia’s economy takes a turn for the worse, unrest grows to unmanageable levels, or the battlefield losses start spiraling, Putin will be walking the plank.
So far, Russian public opinion hasn’t reached a tipping point for the siloviki, according to Marks.
But when it does—and when protests in pockets around Russia are replaced by massive social unrest—the siloviki are going to bail on Putin.
“The Russians are very sensitive, more than they would say, to internal opinion within Russia,” Marks told The Daily Beast. “It’s a country that will explode, but it takes a long time… When you do see the explosion it’s going to come around the economics. Once they can’t get food, once things get rough like that, then you’re going to see people in the streets.”
Putin has been urging calm about the Russian economy, which has been in the doldrums since Putin invaded Ukraine and Western nations imposed sanctions on Russia. Putin said Friday he thinks Russia can withstand sanctions. But there’s only so much he can do to try quelling a nation filled with restlessness and resentment about them.
Inflation in Russia is set to reach approximately 14 percent in 2022, according to the central bank, and access to products and global travel has dwindled as a result of Putin’s war. Russia is headed towards a decade-long recession as it is, the head of Sberbank predicted Friday. And Russians are starting to long for their old ways of life, according to The Washington Post.
Russian polling on support for the war is difficult to cut through, as the Kremlin has tight control over the information environment in the country and the Kremlin has suppressed dissent and criminalized independent war reporting. Biden administration officials have hoped that the crush of sanctions will only compound for Russia over time, and already intelligence services around the world are starting to warn that social support for the war—and the economic conditions in Russia—is lower than publicly known.
For now, though, Putin doesn’t seem prepared to let up in Ukraine, which may only exacerbate existing tensions. Although they retreated from taking Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, earlier in the war, Russian military forces have been stacking up some wins in eastern Ukraine in recent days.
“Russia is making gains now. And they're not going to back off,” Marks said. “Nobody backs off when you’re winning.”
Just last week, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Carpenter, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview that the war looks set to last for “quite a long time.”
But the second the war starts going south for Russian forces, Putin isn’t safe anymore.
“If Ukraine by some miracle were able to push these guys out of the Donbas, and make it humiliating for him, I think he's up for grabs,” Marks said.
For its part, the U.S. intelligence community is likely trying to plot out Putin’s political future and parse how his inner circle is feeling about him in order to gauge any possible shakeups, a former senior ODNI official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told The Daily Beast.
“What they’re going to do and look at at this point, is going to try to tunnel in on the leadership around him to figure out… is the siloviki unhappy with him?” the former official said. “The key point right now is let’s get inside his head—[but that] is harder to do than it is to feel what the immediate guys around him are reacting with, what they're saying.”
When reached for comment about Putin’s political future, a State Department spokesperson indicated Putin is looking weaker by the day.
“It’s clear that Putin has not been able to accomplish the objectives he laid out before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the spokesperson said. “Putin apparently expected a quick victory, but that has been denied him by Ukraine’s forces and the Ukrainian people. The United States and the international community will make Putin’s war of choice a long-term strategic failure for the Kremlin.”
If Putin’s siloviki are plotting to push him out, there might not be a lot of warning signs. They’ll likely aim to keep a close grip on the details, Hoffman predicted.
And if they plan to take him out, it will be swift.
“These guys that are going to do it are going to be so secret about it so that Putin doesn’t find them and kill them first,” Hoffman said. “It’ll happen all of a sudden. And he’ll be dead.”
In a “post-Putin” Russia, mayhem might ensue, warned Marks. Whoever can get the military to stand behind them—even if it takes weeks, months, or years—will likely win out.
“There’d be a mad-dash scramble for a few weeks over who gets power,” Marks said, predicting there might be about a six-month transition to Putin’s No. 2 if he is somehow out of the picture. “It wouldn’t go to hell right away. We’re not talking about tanks in the street right away. What you’re probably going to see though is among the guys around him, there will be a struggle to take that job.”
But for now, the siloviki might not be prepared to act.
In recent days, Putin has been taking steps likely aimed at projecting strength, Hoffman said. When a lawyer for noted Putin critic Alexei Navalny went to visit him last week, they were informed he was gone; the government had transferred Navalny from a penal colony to a maximum-security facility, according to Russian state media. But his aides noted early on in his transfer that his exact whereabouts were unknown, raising alarm about his future.
“The reason why he tries to kill Navalny and might have killed Boris Nemtsov and other opposition politicians—he didn't do it because those guys matter,” Hoffman said, referring to Nemtsov, another Putin critic who was shot dead in 2015 just blocks from the Kremlin. “He’s got to demonstrate that he’s the most ruthless guy. And if he’s not, then his guys will remove him.”