How will Vladimir Putin’s hold on power end? Will he be quietly retired by Kremlin rivals angry at a national humiliation, like Nikita Khrushchev after the debacle of the Cuban missile crisis? Deposed by KGB men even more hawkish than himself, like Mikhail Gorbachev? Overthrown by a popular revolt, like Tsar Nicholas II? Or will he die in his bed still the undisputed tyrant of a police state, like Joseph Stalin?
Prediction has become a risky business in Russia ever since Putin threw his usual calculation and caution to the wind and launched a rash and fundamentally unwinnable war against Ukraine. But it is nonetheless worth examining where Putin’s vulnerabilities lie – and how unfolding economic collapse, international isolation and the likely failure to achieve his goal of a quick decapitation of the Ukrainian state could undermine his once-unassailable position.
Some in the West seem to believe that Putin might be deposed by top generals who realise his plans are doomed – an Operation Valkyrie scenario, like Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Last week Foreign Office minister James Cleverly claimed that Russian military chiefs know that Putin is increasingly ‘isolated’ and ‘illogical’ as he tries to ‘recreate a Russian empire in his mind… they are in a position to stop this and we call on them to do so’.
Putting aside the dubious ethics of a British minister calling for a military coup in a foreign country, there’s little public evidence to back up the Valkyrie scenario. Clearly, the steady stream of very detailed operational information on Putin’s war plans that has been publicly broadcast in Washington and London has come from a highly placed spy or spies close to the Russian military. Indeed a senior UK intelligence source confirms that part of the US and UK strategy in trumpeting their insider information on the Kremlin’s battle plans was ‘to show Putin that he has a leaky ship… and leaky ships tend to sink’.