Earlier this year, I finished reading Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État, the dazzling 1968 “practical handbook” that outlined the soon-to-happen 1974 Portuguese revolution and has been recently invoked to explain the 2013 military coup in Egypt. However, Luttwak took care to distinguish between a coup d’état in a strict sense and various violent means of regime change, such as revolutions, pronunciamientos and putsches, insurgencies, foreign military interventions and so on. The Portuguese Carnation revolution triumphed thanks to popular support, and the overthrow of Morsi was reminiscent of the Hispanic tradition of the pronunciamiento. They did not fit Luttwak’s definition of the coup, which does not involve the masses or warfare. But then,

…what instrument of power will enable it to seize control of the state? The short answer is that the power will come from the state itself. The long answer makes up the bulk of this book. The following is our formal and functional definition:

A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.

If we accept that critical segments at the core of the highly-centralized Russian state apparatus are controlled by rival factions and the presidential administration is performing a continuous balancing act, a major shift in the balance of power achieved by one of the factions through the (threat of) (mis)use of their agencies’ capacity would come close to Luttwak’s definition.

These guys don’t need anybody’s handbooks to act but input from an expert on post-Soviet security services, such as prof. Dawisha, could help understand their logic. Compared with Soviet times, spooks are playing a much greater role at the top and security-service mentality is shaping decisions at all levels of government. From Beria’s downfall in 1953 to Andropov’s ascension in 1983, the Communist leadership made sure KGB generals would not rise above a certain glass ceiling in the inner party. Towards the end of the Brezhnev period, Andropov did influence the Politburo a lot, by feeding them KGB-processed (dis)information among other tricks, but Andropov’s tenure as No. 1 was short and his electors probably knew he was gravely ill when they let him take the top slot in 1983.

The Soviet period saw a nice, clean palace coup in October 1964, when Khruschev dived in a premier and dived out a pensioner, according to popular wit. Accomplished through a vote at a party plenum, it was about as legal as Berlusconi’s ouster in a parliamentary quasi-coup in November 2011 and, unlike the Cavaliere’s fall, did not involve meddling from abroad. The failed 1991 attempt remains something of a mystery to me, superficially very much a classical coup d’état. Then there was street fighting in Moscow in October 1993, not a proper coup because of the popular participation. We end up with 1964, 1991, 2015? 2016? 2017?


Update. Mark Galeotti believes a successful coup in Moscow would take a consensus of elites leading to the removal of the top man, à la 1964, not merely a shift of balance of power:

Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against.

I’ve got no argument with the first and last sentences.

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