Resolved: the Russian oligarchs will not remove Putin

I am hearing a common refrain in the discourse around the Russian domestic situation: If and when the oligarchs who hold the real power get fed up, Putin’s reign will be ended.

I say this is nonsense. I say this will not happen. I say this assertion is based on a fundamental misapprehension about the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs — the various tycoons and figureheads installed atop the industrial and economic giants of Russia — and about the nature of power in Russia.

Putin does not serve at their pleasure. They have their wealth at his. And they have essentially no leverage over him.

The arrangement, basically, was this: When Putin arose, he looked around at the potential competition, and he offered them a deal. You agree that I’m in charge, he said, and I will make you rich. That’s the tradeoff, and the terms are absolute. I have unquestioned, undiluted power over the state. You will not challenge me, threaten me, or contradict me in any way. You will stay out of politics; you will not cultivate relationships in the military or any other security organizations. You will accept that I have unlimited and unconditional dictatorial power. And in exchange, I will see that you become obscenely wealthy.

Consider the example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was leading one of many of Russia’s oil companies, and initially found success under Yeltsin. When Putin arrived, he went along with the arrangement at first, and wound up at the summit of Russia’s oil industry. At the peak of his power, he was the richest man in Russia. But he insisted on questioning the corruption that had begun under Yeltsin and then became entrenched and endemic with Putin’s explicit spoils system, so his whole world was torn down. His fortune was dismantled and he was thrown into prison. Now, he lives in exile in the UK, with barely a fraction of a fraction of his previous wealth.

He was the richest man in Russia, and Putin demolished and discarded him as an example to the others.

The surviving oligarchs cannot coordinate with each other. Putin keeps everyone under surveillance; if they try to conspire, he will know, and he will pick them apart. They have no meaningful power, anyway; they have vast amounts of money, but with no connections to Putin’s security services, they have no levers whose movement they can purchase. Putin has spent more than two decades filtering out disloyal forces and consolidating his power over those who remain, and there’s essentially nothing left on which the oligarchs could potentially get a grip, even in the event they decided they would want to.

Appealing to the frustration of the Russian oligarchs is a non-starter. If Putin is removed against his will, it won’t be by any of them, directly or indirectly.

So unless someone has good reason to believe that one of these billionaires has some mechanism of political force that has somehow escaped Putin’s notice, it would be nice if this argument went away. It’s nonsense.

I suspect your analysis is spot on.

Just to play devil’s advocate, however … if an oligarch controls an industry that’s vital to the economy, does that give him any leverage over Putin?

Of course, I can already see two flaws in that argument.

  1. It might give him leverage over decisions, but not enough to oust Putin.
  2. Putin can just have him removed and there will plenty of wannabes ready to step in.

The only person who can remove Putin is his doctor. Though I bet even his doctors are carefully managed. The oligarchs have little power - though I suppose they might be able to pay someone to attempt something.

honest Q:

is this accepted fact … or your opinion?

If you disagree, make your case.

I agree with the OP. Russia is a kleptocracy and if Putin were to be held accountable, so too would the oligarchs. Their crimes are many and the last thing they want is a transition that would bring scrutiny their way. Now, if the west could offer them a golden parachute, whereby they help Putin out the door in exchange for keeping their loot and their brains inside their skulls to run out the clock in the south of France, Idi Amin style, then there might be a chance.

But the oligarchs have zero incentives to remove Putin and it is not clear they could if they wanted to. Given that the war is popular in Russia, I don’t see any chance of him leaving soon.

It might not be the oligarchs. But someone in Russia has the means and opportunity to depose Putin, and the longer this disastrous war goes on, the more likely they are to have the motive, too. Putin is one man. If someone acts against Putin, it’s not going to be Putin himself kicking down their door and shooting them, or torturing their families, or whatever it is he’s threatening. And if those door-kickers act against Putin, who kicks down their door?

The OP may be right, but it’s not like a group of oligarchs have never turned on a dictatorial leader en masse in the past; there is precedent…

Of course, that sort of backfired on those oligarchs.

I agree with the previous post that if Putin is deposed it will be the work of the internal security services. He has simply been too effective in neutering the other threats. And none more effectively than the tycoons, who might otherwise have significant influence they could exert.

That said, Putin has certainly taken steps to minimize the threat from the security bureau as well. I think we’re stuck with him for a while.

Yeah, I don’t think that there is anyone within this government who has the incentives, means and wherewithal to remove Putin. He had had years to consolidate power.

This is assuming that the oligarchs (or at least a faction) doesn’t manage to conspire with the secret police (or a faction thereof). Especially in the case of the latter, Putin can only know what they tell him.

The guy may be smart and ruthless, but he’s not omniscient.

He is dictator for life, no matter what happens. Best we can root for is a premature death. Anyone who dares to plan a coup is going to be tortured and killed along with his family.

Agreed, and while Putin’s actions have compromised the ability of oligarchs to access the wealth they have invested outside of Russia—for many to a significant degree—it isn’t as if that is going to change unless someone is installed in Putin’s place that actually repudiates the invasion and makes serious overtures to cause Western nations to relax sanctions. Frankly, the current crop of oligarchs own strong fealty to Putin, and were selected specifically to not pose a threat to him, while Putin has been on an active campaign to vilify and eliminate oligarchs who he can not bring to heel. The oligarchs have helped Putin acquire and protect his own wealth (which he has wisely not invested in British real estate and superyachts that can be easily traced) but their need for him and the access he provides is greater than his need for any small collection of them. And despite what you see in the movies, being rich just means you have a lot of money; it doesn’t mean you can hire real professional assassins (which are mostly a literary trope) to will do your bidding effectively in exchange for money deposited in a numbered bank account.

I think that is highly unlikely that anyone will oust Putin in the near future (even some of the people in the intelligence services who would clearly like to seem him humiliated) and that any successor who wants to remain in power will have to stake a pretty hardline position. The lesson of Boris Yeltsin (and Mikhail Gorbachev before him) will loom heavily in the mind of any Russian leader. Putin isn’t the brilliant strategist that some people have credited him with being but he is clearly very canny when it comes to his security and eliminating anyone that could pose a threat, and regardless of how unpopular he is with the oligarchs or the public at large, there are an inner coterie of people who will protect him, and a larger group of very vocal supporters who will back Putin to the literal end because he’s viewed as being the most pro-Russian leader possible, willing to go toe-to-toe with European and American heads of state. Taking Robert Kraft’s NFL ring or making Trump praise him are seen as signs of dominance in a country with a proud cultural history that hasn’t really had much to boast about in the last few decades.

The expectation that some usurper will come along and be Brutus to Putin’s Caesar, as thematically appropriate as it would be, is essentially hopeful pleading. If someone has the will and means to take out Putin over this ill-conceived war they would already have done so. Which is not to say that ‘accidents’ can’t happen, but there is no indication that a convenient falling chandelier is in the offing.

Stranger

+nor will you be wealthier than me.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky became considered to be an agitator, Putin put him on a show trial in a cage. The other oligarchs went in turn to Putin and asked “What is required of us that you will not put us in a cage?” Putin’s response: “50%”

When a dictatorship will collapse is highly unpredictable. Putin seems to me to be in a strong position internally today, but never say never.

And having top-of-the-line Russian tanks towed away by farm tractors are signs of the opposite of dominance.

This prof, specialist in Russian politics, concurs with the OP:

Stranger

The oligarchs are too busy committing suicide to worry about overthrowing Putin. Why, one of them stabbed himself to death with multiple wounds with a knife that was out of his reach!

Just a minor quibble- AIUI, it is normal for defendants to be caged in Russian courts.