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Civil-Military Relations in Moscow: The Finer Points

Dictators build graven images of near-omnipotent control. It is therefore tempting to take this strength for granted, where their only feasible end is a natural death or, more rarely, a dramatic foreign intervention.

Cover Image for Civil-Military Relations in Moscow: The Finer Points
Russian Soldiers in UkrainePhoto Credit: The Independent
Article byJames Lewis
March 10, 2022

Dictators build graven images of near-omnipotent control. It is therefore tempting to take this strength for granted, where their only feasible end is a natural death or, more rarely, a dramatic foreign intervention. The optimistic may put tempered faith in an upstart population, and thus fall the Ceaușescus and Gaddafis of the world. However, the most common means by which dictators fall is via the elegance of a coup d’état, and it is increasingly in vogue to discuss this potential for Moscow. Senator Lindsey Graham dropped a jaw or two when he asked for a Russian Brutus or von Stauffenberg. (He may have chosen better examples, for neither of those men succeeded and both died trying.) Edward Luttwak, author of the veritable bible on coup methodology, recently predicted the war would end Putin’s tenuous grasp on his nation. But a coup, in which a small number of actors infiltrate a section of the government to take control of the rest, is difficult to achieve in Putin’s Moscow. The military has other options, however, to achieve their corporate interests at Putin’s expense. By applying earlier scholars, it is possible to elucidate these alternative outcomes in which Putin’s own forces push back on his policies, but none are likely to bring Moscow’s adventurism in Ukraine to a simple end.

To avoid the absolutist approach to civil-military relations, in which militaries either follower their orders or install a junta, one may turn to the degrees of intervention outlined by Samuel Finer in his 1962 book, The Man on Horseback. In the “Finer Scale,” a military’s influence in civil politics ranges across a spectrum. In the first degree, armed forces are no more influential than any other significant lobby group, and their inputs are constitutional and free of violent implications. Beyond that, militaries may create political difficulties, perhaps by cooperating with the press or rival parties. Further up the scale, vetoes, blackmail, and other sanctions occur, imposing upon civilians a more powerful coercive force. Finally, the military may supplant a leader with one they approve of, or simply place civilian roles under their direct command.

These interventions are a sword of Damocles for all strongmen, and Putin is no exception. To cope with this threat, Putin created a counterweight force to increase the difficulty of executing a coup and appointed loyalists as military brass to decrease the motivation to intervene. But these measures can be, and have been, overcome. In the Soviet Union, the Khrushchev-Zhukov front eliminated the chief of the armed intelligence services, Lavrentiy Beria, who up until then served as a deterrent for the Red Army. Loyalist appointments too can be tricky with political favor being ephemeral. Marshal Dmitri Yazov was perfectly loyal to Gorbachev until he tried to oust him in the final days of the USSR.

The measures remain far from useless, however, and it will be exceedingly difficult to execute a coup in Moscow. Conspirators from the armed forces, who would be most likely to make such an attempt, would have to overcome rivals with competing interests and stake in Putin’s continued reign, such as the FSB. Attempts to recruit would be frustrated by this non-alignment of interests and by the overlapping, unrestricted counterintelligence services. The execution would also be subject to armed response, a damning prospect to be avoided at all costs by coup planners.

Coups are also difficult in societies where soldiers and citizens have regular access to the internet, as plotters rely on absolute control over information. Most of the military must be kept in the dark and targeted leaders must be silenced. Thus, radio stations and TV broadcast towers are captured concurrently with administrative buildings. Failing this, coupists risk the incumbent or other rivals taking to the airwaves to challenge their narrative and spark the previously uninformed and neutral masses to resist, as when King Juan Carlos asserted civilian control in a television address during the 1981 military putsch. In 2016, Recap Erdogan reversed the inertia of action with an address via FaceTime in the first, but most certainly not the last, digital countercoup. This may not be a factor in some of the world’s more coup-prone countries. Burkina Faso has only 18% of its population with regular access to the internet, and it suffered a coup as recently as last month. In Russia, internet access is 85%, which implies a need for planners to incorporate digital information services or target recognizable leaders before they can make an address. This complicates planning, recruitment, and execution phases, and reduces the likelihood of a coup attempt and its potential for success.

Additionally, the motive for a military coup is sapped by appointing loyalists to key positions. It is a popular choice despite happening at the expense of military effectiveness, for sycophants rarely happen to be the best logisticians (which is at least one explanation for the abysmal operational art displayed by Russian forces in Ukraine.) Additionally, principles and personal ties are less salient than practical barriers, as loyalties can change on a dime. For example, the interests of a defense minister can diverge from appointer if other selectorate forces encourage the regime to rearrange responsibilities or terminate positions, which is a considerable likelihood after a humiliating military performance abroad.

Therefore, regardless of barriers to opportunity, we may accept a disposition for Russian military brass to push back on Putin while acknowledging the difficulty in executing an earnest coup. It is significantly more feasible to see pressures exerted lower on the Finer Scale, which may come in the form of lighter sanctions, ranging from simple refusal to work, or by leveraging the implicit threat of action without risking its conduct.

What they ask for with this negotiation position is another question but hopes that it will entail anything other than the institutional interests of the army is quixotic. It should be understood that militaries most often seek to expand their role and increase their funding. Lockian democratic reforms seldom make it to the list. For that, the onus is unfortunately on the unarmed, ununiformed Russian citizen, who may seize the loyalty of the military if conditions are right. Such conditions are notoriously difficult to predict and hard to incite. Whereas a successful coup can be coordinated by as few as ten people, the forces of revolution are more fluid and more difficult to divine.

What this means for Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine is less beneficial than hoped. The Russian Army may be suffering humiliation in their ‘special military operation,’ but ambitious majors, colonels, and generals have a habit of using their influence to dive further into wars whether they are losing or not, for a lost war has greater survival and privilege implications for military staff than a losing one. Examples include efforts from Japanese officers to prevent the Emperor’s surrender broadcast in 1945, or when the Four Generals attempted to seize the French government to continue their unsustainable war in Algeria. Those who are banking on the Russian Army to do otherwise are due to be disappointed.

Hopes for Ukraine are thus unsurprisingly found in Ukraine, and in the tactile foreign support for the nation. Hopes that Russians can overcome the mercenary interests of their elite are similarly found in the average Russian, and that hope is not ill-placed, for whereas coups have declined with the improvement of regime countermeasures, popular movements have not been subject to such difficulties. But it would be foolish to dismiss the ambition of the military just because it is difficult for them to act. The risks of these activities might be high, but so are the rewards, and secret lines of communication often weave into confederacies by means unobservable until after it is too late.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.