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Why the Russian Coup Plot Failed
I study coups. Here's why the Wagner plot fizzled — and what comes next.
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Last week, on Twitter, it seemed like everyone had suddenly morphed into an expert on deep sea submersibles. “Oh yes, everyone knows you can’t have a carbon fiber hull at that depth,” they tweeted. Then, something astonishing happened. Russian tanks turned away from Ukraine and toward Moscow. In a flash, those submarine experts became coup experts!
It was a miracle.
I am not a submarine expert, but I have studied coups for over a decade. As part of that research, I’ve traveled around the world—to places like Madagascar, Zambia, Belarus, Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia, and Thailand—to interview hundreds of generals, coup plotters, former despots, their henchmen, rebel commanders, and rank-and-file soldiers. Those interviews have given me insights into how coups work—why they can succeed, but also why they so often fail.
I’d like to share a few of those insights here, because I don’t think the story has been adequately explained by most press reporting. (Except, perhaps, for this breathtakingly brilliant piece in The Atlantic, written by someone with astonishingly similar expertise).
What just happened…and what is a coup?
Over the weekend, one of Putin’s most important allies, Yevgeny Prigozhin, decided to take on Putin directly. His motives remain unclear, despite his public statements saying that he didn’t intend to topple Putin. (I’ve asked a lot of coup plotters why they did it. Nobody has ever answered “I did it for power and money,” but that’s usually the real reason).
Prigozhin’s mercenary army, The Wagner Group, raced toward Moscow in a convoy, experiencing limited resistance, capturing strategic hubs like Rostov-on-Don along the way. And then, just as quickly, Prigozhin reversed course, calling the whole thing off. So, what just happened?
It’s unclear why the putsch was called off, but clues have surfaced. One theory suggests that Putin threatened to kill Prigozhin’s family, which would help explain the abrupt turnaround. Regardless, the coup plot faced long odds, even if Wagner had made it to Moscow. To understand why, you need to understand what coups are and how they work.
A coup d’état is a sudden, irregular transfer of power, usually executed by the military in coordination with other elites. If that’s too much precise jargon for your liking, just think of it as a president or prime minister being abruptly tossed out of office by people with guns.
Another way to understand coups is to understand what they aren’t. They aren’t civil wars (large scale prolonged combat between a rebel group and a country’s military that usually lasts for months, even years). And they aren’t revolutions (broad-based uprisings that involve huge groups of people and usually involve a sweeping change from one type of regime to another — such as in the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011). A coup is lightning quick, and it involves one group of powerful people taking out the ruling group, with deadly force or the threat of deadly force.
As I wrote in The Atlantic, coups are becoming rarer, but they’ve been responsible for the demise of most dictators. After all, a dictator can survive mass protests in the streets. But when the generals and soldiers turn on you, you’re done.
Since the end of World War II, two-thirds of all dictators have been toppled in coups d’état…However, in recent years, coups have become less common. During the height of the Cold War, an average of 13 coup plots were executed per year globally. Since 2010, that number has hovered around two to three a year.
Why did this coup fail?
For a moment, let’s set aside whether or not Putin threatened Prigozhin’s family and just think about the coup plot’s chances of success from the beginning.
Most coup plots fail. That’s for two main reasons.
First, it’s really difficult to coordinate and plan a coup plot when the entire effort relies on secrecy. You can’t exactly pop down to the local general’s office, crack open a beer, and say “So, what would you think about me trying to topple the government?” to gauge their reaction.
Coup plotters usually fly blind. And that means that every important decision, once the coup is in motion, is made with deeply flawed information, as though you’re trying to drive down a highway with snow covering your windshield, just hoping for the best. Sometimes, it works out. But most of the time, you crash and burn.
Second, every self-respecting dictator engages in the authoritarian national pastime known as “coup proofing.” Dictators often come to power through coups, so they know they could get toppled—even killed—by a coup. As a result, their first order of business is trying to create an insurance policy to avoid that fate when things fall apart. Coup proofing comes in many forms, but there are a few tried-and-true tactics.
For example, you could pay an elite group of soldiers extra money to be loyal to the end. The idea is that when the coup plotters storm the palace, the elite guard shoots back rather than shooting you, the dictator. (When I’ve walked around Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo, there are always fancy cars parked outside the palace that exist for only this reason; they are just paid to shoot back).
You could also try a divide and conquer strategy, pitting different factions against each other, ensuring that if one group comes for you, another rival will try to block them from taking power. This is an effective tactic, and it also explains why dictators often rotate their top personnel around — sometimes even sending key figures to be ambassadors abroad so that they can’t amass their own independent power base within the country.
Putin adopted both strategies — and much more — as an insurance policy. So, even if Prigozhin could have made it to Moscow, it’s not clear that he would have succeeded in seizing power or being able to dictate his terms to the Kremlin.
But here’s the thing: nobody could have predicted what would happen during the plot. I’ve studied coups for over a decade and I had no idea how it would turn out. It’s impossible to know. That’s because coups are highly contingent events, meaning that they often pivot—succeeding or failing—on the smallest details and the right timing.
The Bandwagon Effect
Coup plots succeed when they look like they will succeed. I don’t mean that as some cute turn of phrase; it’s literally what matters most. When a coup looks like it will fail—or looks like it might fail—then few soldiers, generals, oligarchs, or politicians will take the risk of sticking their necks out to back it. After all, if you back a coup that fizzles, you’re likely to end up pretty unhappy (unless your definition of fun is rotting in a jail cell or getting tortured).
On the other hand, if the plot looks like an inevitable victory, then everyone rallies to the cause, hoping to be on the winning team. This is called the Bandwagon Effect, and it’s the secret to a successful coup. Sports teams fill their stadiums when they are on track to make the playoffs; coup plotters fill their ranks when they look like they will seize power.
If Prigozhin had kept the coup plot going for longer, and had managed to get elites (other generals or key political figures) to defect, then he might have succeeded in taking power or at least forcing Putin to give into his demands. By securing some high-profile allies who could have announced their support at a key moment, there might have been a domino effect, where one elite figure after another chose to back the coup, and Putin’s grip on power would have crumbled.
That obviously didn’t happen.
What happens next?
Dictators who survive coup plots tend to understand their fragility. They also tend to understand that they’ve just been dealt a huge political blow. Their regime is premised on the (false) notion that everyone adores them and that all dissent is fake, cooked up by the regime’s adversaries. When a coup plot happens, that myth is shattered. The political consequences of a failed coup plot can therefore be devastating if they’re not managed carefully.
Putin has a serious problem on his hands. When Wagner tanks were racing toward Moscow, nobody seemed to care. Nobody really fought to protect him, nor were there public displays of loyalty to him. As Anne Applebaum noted, Putin has long tried to dissuade Russians from actively opposing him by breeding a sense of futility, apathy, and cynicism. But that had a side effect, which was on display during the failed coup plot over the weekend: “For if no one cares about anything, that means they don’t care about their supreme leader, his ideology, or his war.” They just waited, and watched, to see who would win.
So, gazing into my crystal ball, the best I can do is make an informed guess: Putin will spend the coming days and weeks trying to look like the strongman he claims to be. That likely means an escalation of violence in Ukraine, but it also is likely to mean a serious purge of those who are deemed disloyal to his regime. (A purge in this sense means getting rid of enemies, usually by tossing them into jail, forcing them into exile, or murdering them—a gruesome tool that Putin has used before. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more key figures “fall out of windows”).
Purging enemies is a double-edged sword. If you purge too much, you end up hardening anger toward the regime, which could lead to more coup plots. If you purge too little, you look weak. So, what most strategic dictators do is they purge enough to send a message, while keeping their allies close. Reward your friends, punish potential foes. (Research from 2018 shows that dictators who purge adversaries after surviving a coup attempt tend to stay in power longer than those who don’t).
Whatever happens next, this is a dangerous time for the world. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Prigozhin is good because he’s defying Putin. They’re both war criminals, brutal men who have inflicted unimaginable suffering on innocent people. Prigozhin is a ruthless killer, as is Putin, and neither of them should be in charge of a major world power that controls one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. And volatility in a nuclear power is always scary.
I don’t know what will happen next — nobody does. There’s a strong incentive for political analysts and pundits to boldly make predictions about highly uncertain events that are fundamentally unpredictable. That dynamic clouds our judgment and causes us to make mistakes because it makes us think the world is more tameable and controllable than it actually is. So, I’ll just admit it: I don’t know.
But I’m willing to make one concrete prediction.
Yevgeny Prigozhin will not die of old age.
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