Photo Credit: Wikimedia
By Yan Graf
For the past few months, the world’s attention has been fixed on the brutal war in Ukraine. While Ukrainian and Russian citizens continue to bear most of the brutality wrought by the war, it has become clear that one man is responsible for starting the conflict: the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. With hopes for a peaceful diplomatic settlement dwindling, many in the West have begun speculating that the war in Ukraine will only end if it goes hand in hand with Putin’s resignation. While some hope that he is forced out of power through protest or political pressure, others, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have clamored for Putin to be assassinated, asking on Twitter, “Is there a Brutus in Russia?” sparking backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike. But such hopes of Putin leaving power are unfounded. While the Russian President has certainly been put under pressure by Western sanctions, Putin has built a “counter-intelligence state” that secures his iron grip on Russia’s political future.
At first glance, the prospect of Putin’s deposition does not seem too outlandish. Even before the invasion was announced, Western analysts broadly agreed war was unlikely. However, one thing was clear: a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be deeply unpopular in Russia. A Washington Post poll conducted in Russia in late December 2021 found that only 8% of 3,245 Russian respondents thought Russia should send forces into Ukraine. Another poll by the independent Russian Levada Center found only 25% of Russians favored integrating the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Donbas into Russian territory—Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine. The actions of the Russian people have only confirmed the polls’ accuracy. Days after the invasion of Ukraine began, unusually large numbers of protests took place across dozens of cities in Russia, including booming cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Additionally, despite intense travel restrictions nearly 200,000 Russians have fled their homeland since the beginning of the war.
Russia has a long history of popular uprisings, with popular revolutions overthrowing unpopular rulers in 1905, 1917, and 1989. The wishful thinking of overthrowing Putin overlooks Putin’s study of Russian history and the resources he has appropriated to prevent a fourth Russian revolution. Many underestimate the size and strength of the security structures in place to insulate Putin from threats to his power. Putin’s security apparatus goes far beyond investments in military and police forces. From the ground up, the modern Russian Federation has been developed into a so-called “counter-intelligence state,” or a state in which state security services penetrate all aspects of society.
Putin’s inner circle must be examined to understand the incredible size of Russia’s counter-intelligence state. While many Western observers perceive the Russian state to be dominated by oligarchs, a new group of power brokers has risen to prominence within Russia in recent years. This group, known as the Siloviki or “enforcers,” are high-ranking government officials, primarily with intelligence or military backgrounds. From running the Russian military to Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), the Siloviki dominate Russian politics and constitute Putin’s inner circle. The Siloviki, together with Putin, maintain an iron fist over the domestic and foreign policies of the Russian government.
Image: Director of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov (left) and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Photo Credit: Kremlin News
One of the most intriguing and revealing aspects of the Siloviki is their shared military-intelligence backgrounds. Most Siloviki, like Putin himself, rose to prominence as part of either the Soviet army or the KGB. This Soviet legacy has left many in this new power structure with a distrustful and even paranoid view of the West, which the Siloviki believe is out to destroy Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has argued repeatedly that the West represents an “existential threat” to Russia. Nikolai Patrushev gave an interview in 2015 stating that the United States would “much rather that Russia did not exist at all.” The intense fear-mongering that is popular with the Siloviki has put Putin’s regime into a fight-or-flight mentality, leading to massive investments in Russia’s state security. The military has been developing new hardware, like the SU-57, Russia’s first 5th generation fighter, and the T-14 Armata, Russia’s new main battle tank. While there are still too few fighters and tanks to threaten the West, other frightening new weapons like the recently tested Sarmat ICBM—which Putin warned “would give thought to those who are trying to threaten Russia”—pose a real danger to the West.
Image: President Putin (Left) Nikolai Patrushev (Right) in a Security Council meeting.
Photo Credit: Kremlin News
Even with these advances in military technologies, Russia’s internal security has seen the most frightening expansion. Together with the Siloviki, Putin has created vast internal security forces that form the muscle of his “counter-intelligence state.” The FSB, led by Silovik Alexander Bortnikov, is perhaps the best example of this. While official figures do not exist, estimates place the total number of FSB agents at close to 200,000, which would be nearly six times the employment of the FBI. But the FSB is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, Putin founded the Russian National Guard, or Rosgvardiya. Separate from the military, this new body has become an internal military service loyal solely to Putin. While officially tasked with keeping order in Russia, Rosgvardiya units have deployed to Ukraine, demonstrating their ability to be used as Putin’s personal army. While numbers are unreliable, some estimates claim Rosgvardiya has up to 400,000 members. If accurate, this would make it larger than the Russian Army. In addition to these services, Putin also counts on the support of many other paramilitary groups, such as the Kadyrovites, a private militia loyal to the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s most trusted advisors. The Kadyrovites are considered some of Russia’s finest shock troops. Ukraine’s security chief was cited as claiming that a detachment of them was tasked with eliminating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. While much smaller than Rosgvardiya, estimates place the size of the Kadyrovtsy at around 10,000 soldiers.
While the internal military under Putin’s control can prevent a popular revolution, it cannot guarantee protection from an internal coup. Many speculate that government insiders, including some of the Siloviki themselves, are preparing to push Putin out of power. However, such moves are unlikely, as Putin has taken many pre-emptive measures to prevent this. Days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin held a very public and televised meeting with his Security Council. During this meeting he confirmed the support of all of his senior officials for the public record, including most of the Siloviki. This ensured that anyone who later stepped out of line with Putin’s vision would automatically castigate themselves as a hypocrite, weakening the legitimacy of any potential coup.
For decades now, the Russian government has worked tirelessly to assemble an iron-fisted, singularly-focused security apparatus to keep Vladimir Putin in power. The efficiency with which anti-war protests in Russia were dismantled only further proves the incredible capability of Putin’s “counter-intelligence state.” The fact that such protests mobilized at all wrings hope that a popular uprising could potentially oust the Russian president, but given the scale and prevalence of his power structure, Vladimir Putin appears poised to stay.