When Failed Coups Strengthen Leaders

Putin and Prighozin

After the abrupt end of the aborted Wagner mutiny on June 24, Western media was ablaze with speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “weakened” and “humiliated.” Some commentators went as far as suggesting that the failed uprising represented the “final chapter” of Putin’s rule. 

Unfortunately for these optimists, history suggests their expectations might be misplaced. In fact, failed coups often help rulers consolidate their power. Scholars Joan Timoneda, Abel Escribà-Folch, and John Chin suggest four reasons: failed coups help identify internal threats, demonstrate the reliability of elite support, push elites to further rally around the ruler, and deter would-be challenges by revealing the strength of the incumbent leader. The experiences of coup plotters from ancient Rome to modern-day Turkey help show how all these factors can play out. Looking at past examples, alongside Putin’s ongoing response to the mutiny he faced, suggests that whatever observers might hope for, Putin could now be harder to oust than ever.

Putsches Past

A brief historical survey shows how this failed coup might help Putin and why its consequences are anything but predestined. The attempt by members of the Turkish military to remove their president in 2016 backfired tremendously. The assassination of an Austrian dictator in 1934 as part of a putsch did little to shake the slain leader’s newly established political system. Similarly, a large popular revolt in 1991 did not succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Each failed attempt to alter the status quo did not simply fail but ultimately reinvigorated the existing political structures. This could very well be the case in Russia as well.

 

 

Here, comparativists might ask whether the events that transpired on June 23–24 really count as a coup. Much remains unknown about what happened, making categorization more complicated. So far, Wagner’s efforts appear to be a hybrid event, seeking to subvert the military chain of command (a mutiny), promising that Russia “will have a new president soon” (a coup), and, in Putin’s eyes, threatening a civil war (a rebellion). What all these definitions have in common, however, is that they seek to undermine the existing power system. In the Russian Federation, this power system is heavily centralized and inextricably tied to the presidency. This means that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s actions can effectively be analyzed as a coup attempt, even if he was serious when he said the Wagner Group “went to demonstrate our protest, and not to overthrow the government in the country.”

 Seizing the Opportunity: Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Having recently won yet another election and thereby extending his twenty-year rule, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows a thing or two about the consequences of a failed coup. On July 15, 2016, coup plotters dropped bombs on the parliament, kidnapped the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and fired on civilians in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. In the end, the bloodiest coup attempt in the country’s history cost the lives of 251 people while injuring more than 2,200 others.

Seven years later, however, Erdogan remains firmly in power. Instead of being weakened, the Turkish president capitalized on the moment, which he called “a gift from god.” In the nine months that followed the coup attempt, more than 113,000 people were detained with more than 47,000 arrested and charged. These figures, which later swelled to 160,000 detained and 77,000 arrested, included thousands from the police, the military, the civil service, and the judiciary. Reporters Without Borders also documented the arrest of journalists, closure or seizure of publishing houses, confiscation of passports, and cancellation of press cards.

It is not unusual for some leaders, including those like Muammar Gaddafi who came to power through a coup, to neuter their militaries in a bid to stave off future challenges. However, Erdogan chose not to follow suit. Since 2016, he has been largely unencumbered in running foreign and domestic policy. The Turkish military has intervened in Syria and Iraq while the Turkish arms sector continues to grow. For the incumbent in the Kremlin, the ability to survive a coup attempt and proceed to assert oneself militarily and confidently could be a useful precedent.

Failed Successes: Engelbert Dollfuss

On occasion, a coup attempt may achieve its goal by removing (or eliminating) a ruler while still fundamentally failing in the objective of regime change. In these cases, the survivors quickly heed the lesson that might have benefited their predecessor. In 1933, for example, the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss established a dictatorship under the banner of his Fatherland Front after declaring “the self-elimination of parliament.” He did this, in part, because he feared the electoral chances of the Austrian Nazis following their sister party’s successful takeover of Germany. In 1934, with backing from Berlin, the Austrian Nazis launched the July Putsch, in which Dollfuss was assassinated. But his death proved insufficient to achieve the Nazis’ objectives. Dollfuss was succeeded by Kurt von Schuschnigg, who managed to suppress the revolt with the aid of the police, military, and pro-government paramilitaries. 

The failed putsch had the unintended effect of actually strengthening Austria’s dictatorship. The regime was barely over a year old and its constitution less than three months old when Dollfuss died. But it received a new lease on life after surviving the putsch. Schuschnigg was able to crack down even more, arresting 260 Nazis in the Viennese police force. The coup attempt backfired not just internally but also internationally. Thanks to the failure, Austria strengthened its relationship with fascist Italy, which backed Austrian independence and helped deter a direct German intervention.

This leads to a bigger point. Many observers mistakenly attribute Moscow’s every decision to Putin personally. But even if he were taken out of the picture, the complex structure that he has constructed could very well endure. Tatiana Stanovaya has argued that “the regime may prove to be more resilient, drawn-out, and potentially radical than Putin himself.” Without a complete purge of the security services, the media, and the economy, Putinism could still survive even an effective coup. There is no evidence that whoever replaces Putin would simply surrender unilaterally in Ukraine and fully withdraw instead of intensifying the conflict.

 

Doubling Down: The Death of Caesar

Ancient history provides similar examples. When Brutus and his confederates conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar, there was likely little doubt that the dictator would die. However, the conspirators, according to Appian of Alexandria, were “envious of [Caesar’s] great power and desiring to restore the government of their fathers.” But the belief that their deed would be popularly acclaimed proved to be dangerously naïve. Roman historian Suetonius wrote that instead, “the populace ran from [Caesar’s] funeral, with torches in their hands, to the houses of [the assassins] Brutus and Cassius.” The civil war unleashed by the murder not only resulted in the demise of Caesar’s enemies but also propelled forward key supporters like his trusted lieutenant Mark Antony and his posthumously adopted son Octavian. Ultimately, Octavian would go on to affirm Caesar’s autocratic rule when he became Rome’s first emperor under the name Augustus.

Caesar’s clemency was well known — he had previously pardoned Brutus — but this trait was not taken up by his successors, who learned from the slain leader’s mistakes. During the Second Triumvirate, Mark Antony in particular was keen to use proscription to target his enemies, famously ordering Cicero’s right hand cut off and put up for display. Later Augustus would exile those he deemed subversive. In other words, the tyranny Caesar’s assassins ostensibly feared was in fact accelerated due to their own actions.

When the Kremlin announced it would abandon criminal prosecution of participants in the rebellion and allow Wagner members to join the Russian military, return home, or move to Belarus, many observers were surprised. Since then, though, media reports suggests that the Federal Security Service is continuing its investigations. Meanwhile, state-controlled Russian media continues to discredit Prigozhin. This suggests that, even if he is not yet ready to fight on two fronts, Putin does not want to repeat the mistake Caesar made with Brutus. 

Securitization: Saddam Hussein

Coups are built on the assumption that an existing government or its leader is weak. By failing, coups can inadvertently alert leaders to this weakness. Aware of an existential threat to the state or their person, these leaders may shift from worrying about things like the economy or health care to self-preservation, sacrificing the country’s interests for the sake of securitization.

After being pushed out of Kuwait in February 1991, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was suddenly confronted by a revolt that at one point left fourteen of the country’s eighteen provinces out of his control. Over the course of March, Iraqi security forces cracked down and by early April had largely squashed what remained of the uprisings. Isolated internationally, ruined financially, and weakened militarily, Saddam Hussein seemed to be out of luck. But the Tikriti managed to resist internal and external pressures for a dozen more years. 

Not surprisingly, the 1990s represented a different phase in Saddam’s rule. He was now facing internal and external existential threats simultaneously during a period of relative weakness. During the 1970s, he had primarily focused on improving the country domestically, including developing Iraq’s educational and health infrastructure. During the 1980s, his focus was external, dominated by his conflict with revolutionary Iran. The 1990s, however, were almost wholly defined by concerns to the viability of his leadership. In 1998, Washington passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change in Baghdad official policy and authorized the president to provide Iraqi opposition groups with weapons and training. This failed to bring down the regime, but it heightened Saddam’s efforts to exert control during the final years of his rule.

Prigozhin’s critique of the Russian military establishment clearly resonates with some Russians, particularly those who think the war in Ukraine is not being waged either hard or effectively enough. Polling suggests that a not-insignificant portion of the general population sympathized with Prigozhin’s criticism even if they did not approve of his actions. The Kremlin now has reason and opportunity to try to address this weakness before any other challenger seeks to exploit it.

Paths for Putin

It remains to be seen what steps the Kremlin will take in order to prevent a repeat of June 24. While the mutiny came as a surprise to many, the Russian government was already — if belatedly — trying to rein in the Wagner Group. Precipitating the uprising was the Ministry of Defense’s announcement that members of private military companies would need to sign contracts directly with the ministry itself by July 1. The fallout from the putsch has complicated efforts; mutineers can now choose to go to Belarus, where a Wagner base is reportedly being constructed. On the other hand, some efforts are accelerating. Wagner’s heavy weaponry is being transferred to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Comparing the Wagner rebellion with the fragmentation of the late Western Roman Empire, ancient military historian Bret Devereaux asked, “If you are a Russian oligarch right now, what lesson did you just learn about the value of having your own private army?” His question was rhetorical, suggesting every rich Russian would now want one as a tool to gain leverage with the state. But the opposite could prove truer. Prigozhin has likely ruined this possibility — or at least made it harder for any imitators to repeat his effort at armed bargaining. Moving forward, Putin would be smart to prevent any comparable entities from emerging. Other independent volunteer battalions, such as the Akhmat special forces unit led by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, are already being integrated into the Russian military.

Indeed, the number of people with the power to play Prigozhin’s role might not be as high as it seems. As used in the Western media today, “Russian oligarch” is something of a misnomer. Oligarchs, in the traditional definition, have power. However, those Russians often described as oligarchs do not have power, but merely exercise delegated authority. Whether it is the siloviki (officials or those with a background in the security services), heads of state-owned enterprises (mainly technocrats), or those with limited territorial authority (such as Kadyrov), their power ultimately derives from the presidency rather than an independent base. As one analyst noted, this is true for rich businessmen as well since “wealthy Russians depend on political approval, not vice versa.” Arguably, Prigozhin signified a potential genuine oligarch thanks to his direct command of the Wagner Group, but even he is ultimately dependent on the Russian state. 

Prigozhin lacked any meaningful institutional support for his effort, with no one from Putin’s inner military or intelligence circle visibly defecting. Prigozhin’s call for the sacking of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov has been ignored so far. Since the mutiny, both men have appeared on video despite hopes by Prigozhin for their immediate sacking, signaling a desire to close ranks in Moscow. Nevertheless, perceived apathy by some elites could still be punished. Furthermore, as is common after failed revolts, changes can and likely will be made. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Thomas Graham noted, “In the aftermath of the rebellion, we should expect to see a government reshuffling. Someone will have to take the blame for not nipping the [Wagner] rebellion in the bud.”

The rhetoric by Putin about the possibility of civil war suggests that the Kremlin might be willing to take major actions in the medium to long term. While allowing Prigozhin to move to Belarus and not face any criminal charges might seem like a major climb down, it does not mean that Putin will not take further actions later. The fact that the Russian government did not use armed force to suppress the revolt but instead preferred a peaceful resolution is not a new tactic. In fact, in places such as Syria and the Central African Republic, Russian officials have repeatedly negotiated agreements with local rebels, ranging from disengagement to safe corridors. This strategy has helped Damascus and Bangui consolidate their power — often in conjunction with more brutal measures later on. Putin’s June 29th meeting with Prigozhin in the Kremlin could very well be part of such a strategy.

The hopes that the Wagner rebellion will bring down Putin seem to reflect a degree of wishful thinking that has plagued much Western coverage of Russia. Indeed, Putin’s fall has been predicted as far back as the March 2012 presidential elections. Government responses to something as unnerving as a rebellion range from the emotional to the rational, from carefully thought out to instinctive. As a result, this might well be the moment Putin makes a fatal misstep. But precedent suggests the odds are against it. 

 

 

Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge focusing on modern military and diplomatic history, a visiting researcher at Université libre de Bruxelles, and a former guest researcher at the Swedish Defence University. He also writes widely on security policy and international affairs.

Image: The Kremlin

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