Authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir Putin are faced with a dilemma: they require their military forces to competently conduct campaigns against external enemies, but these same capabilities make them more capable of successfully initiating coups to remove the incumbent leader. Putin, like other leaders of his ilk, is forced to balance policies which promote competence in the armed forces with measures that ensure regime survival. The latter are referred to as ‘coup-proofing’ measures, the implementation of which, to some extent explain the underperformance of the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
Counterbalancing and Parallel Forces
The coup-proofing measure of most consequence to Russia’s military performance in Ukraine is ‘counterbalancing’. This involves the introduction of new security forces to counterbalance the military and each other. A splintered security sector filled with various armed groups are in competition with each other for funding, recruits, and supplies, as well as the ruling autocrat’s attention, which is ultimately vital for attaining the aforementioned resources.
Counterbalancing confers three advantages. Firstly, it promotes loyalty by encouraging competition and distrust between militarized factions who must demonstrate allegiance to the leader to secure resources. Secondly, it deters coups because the officers and senior figures distrust their counterparts in other organizations; and thirdly, it prevents the likelihood of a coup succeeding as it is more difficult for military and security forces operating under disparate chains of command to coordinate and cooperate effectively.
To quote, a 2017 paper appearing in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, ‘If coups are akin to coordination games, counterbalancing can be understood as an effort to add additional players to the game – actors who lack the incentive to move in concert with the others.’
Counterbalancing is rarely used in isolation and may be combined with other coup-proofing measures. For example, authoritarian leaders frequently favour loyalty over meritocracy when selecting staff for senior military and security positions.
Mercenaries as Parallel Forces
Several parallel armed groups exist outside of the Russian military’s chain of command. The most high-profile example is the use of mercenaries from Wagner Group, formerly led by Yevgeny Prigozhin until his demise in August 2023. Wagner Group employs an estimated 50,000 soldiers, 40,000 of which are believed to be released prison convicts. For Putin, the introduction of mercenaries to the war in Ukraine conferred several benefits including a degree of plausible deniability, less domestic blowback from casualties, and an alternative source of manpower which was especially valuable prior to the partial mobilization in September 2022.
From a coup-proofing perspective, the introduction of a private military company (PMC) with overlapping responsibilities to the regular military promoted greater competition between senior leaders. This rivalry was exacerbated by the contest for vital resources like ammunition, supplies and personnel.
The feud between Wagner’s late leader with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov was especially bitter. Prigozhin frequently levelled scathing criticism at the two men, and other senior military officers for their handling of the war, accusing them of stealing the credit for Wagner’s battlefield successes in Ukraine, and even attempting to sabotage the PMC’s efforts by withholding vital ammunition.
For a time, this suited Putin. Prigozhin was careful to avoid directly criticizing the Russian president himself which helped to deflect any blame Putin might receive from the public onto his generals. Moreover, Prigozhin’s actions appeared to fit a preestablished pattern in Russian politics whereby senior figures jostle against each other to secure the president’s favour.
There are several Russian PMCs in addition to Wagner Group. Konstantin Pikalov, once thought to be Prigozhin’s right hand man and the head of Wagner operations in Africa, heads his own mercenary group called ‘Convoy’, which were founded in occupied Crimea in Autumn 2022. Another group is ‘Redut’, which was likely formed to provide security for Russian-owned facilities in Syria, but it believed to have been one of the first PMCs to provide personnel during the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
The Russian energy giant Gazprom also has mercenaries in the guise of ‘private security organizations’, which energy companies were permitted to create after a new law was passed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in February 2023. It is unclear whether the various groups associated with Gazprom subsidiary Gazprom Neft will exclusively guard the company’s energy facilities or whether they will take on active combat roles in Ukraine.
Other Parallel Forces
Mercenaries are not the only parallel forces at play. In 2016, Putin formed the Rosgvardiya (National Guard) under the leadership of Viktor Zolotov, the president’s former bodyguard. The formation of the Rosgvariya entailed the reorganization of preexisting internal security forces into a new agency which directly reports to Putin. Ostensibly, the Rosgvardiya’s responsibilities largely concern public order, policing, and counterterrorism, but the 300,000 to 400,000 strong force certainly acts as a deterrent to would-be coup-plotters. The Rosgvardiya has also reportedly seen action in Ukraine.
Similar examples of counterbalancing can be seen in the intelligence sphere. Three of the country’s most important intelligence services, the GRU, the SVR, and the FSB, each have their own elite special forces contingents. Competition and mutual distrust between the three is rife due to a high degree of overlapping tasks and low degree of cooperation. The FSB have attracted a particularly high degree of rancour from the GRU and SVR because of its increasingly proactive role conducting operations beyond its domestic remit. Additionally, counterintelligence officers from the FSB are embedded directly within the armed forces to monitor signs of dissent.
Finally, there are parallel forces provided by the Russian republics. Just two days after the invasion of Ukraine, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, confirmed that the 141st Special Motorized Regiment – better known as the Kadyrovites – were operating in the country. The Kadyrovites are essentially a paramilitary organization loyal to Kadyrov, functioning as his private army.
Like Prigozhin, Kadyrov has been highly critical of the Russian military leadership but avoided levelling such critiques at Putin. By emphasizing the effectiveness of Chechen fighters over regular Russian forces, Kadyrov may have been hoping to make himself appear more indispensable to Putin.
How Coup-Proofing Degrades Military Effectiveness
The introduction of several players incentivized to hold each other in mutual suspicion is not conducive to an effective and unified war effort, as events in Ukraine have demonstrated. As explained by James M. Powell, coup-proofing ‘undermines the fighting capacity of a military by creating coordination challenges in the field.’ Unity of command is necessary for a coup to be effective, but it is just as necessary for conducting a war. The absence of unified command has thus jeopardized the entire Russian war effort.
The lack of a unified command structure was evident in the early stages of the war. In the first months following the invasion, Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies and analysts were unable to identify a single overall commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine. Instead, it was believed that separate formations were drawn from each of Russia’s four military districts and placed under the command of senior officers from each district, with Putin taking on an oversized role, sometimes reportedly giving orders to field formations. Last April, Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov was finally named as overall commander but there have been at least three reshuffles at the top since then.
Wagner’s increasing share of frontline duties further undermined unity of command, with Prigozhin and his mercenaries not subject to the authority of the regular armed forces. Tensions between Prigozhin and the miliary leadership culminated in Wager Group’s mutiny in June. A civil war or coup seemed momentarily possible in Russia until a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin was later killed in a plane crash in August removing him from the chessboard altogether, but his insubordination was a clear sign that Putin had miscalculated and allowed the rivalries simmering between the members of his inner circle to burn too hot.
Beyond Prigozhin’s dramatic rebellion, Coup-proofing has created other unintended consequences which have hindered Russia’s military efforts. An overemphasis on loyalty at the expense of competence coupled with fierce competition between the security and defence services have created incentive structures that have undermined honesty and integrity, inter-service cooperation, and professionalism.
These trends were identified by analysts as being particularly pervasive in the Russian intelligence community even before the invasion of Ukraine. For example, a 2021 Congressional Research Service report noted that ‘Agencies compete with each other for greater responsibilities, budgets, and political influence, often at the expense of other agencies.’ As Mark Galeotti puts it, ‘The competition for presidential approval is especially strong and has led to a perverse competition to tell the boss what they think he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.’ This culture likely incentivised the Russian intelligence community to provide briefings to Putin prior to the invasion that confirmed his preconceptions that Ukraine would offer little resistance.
It is equally questionable if the most competent officers have been granted the responsibility to lead Russia’s war on Ukraine. Sergei Surovikin, a veteran of several conflicts and broadly considered to be capable officer by most military analysts, was made the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine in October 2022. However, Surovikin was replaced in January the following year by Valery Gerasimov, despite the latter having already attracted much of the blame for implementing a faulty strategy in his role as the Chief of the General Staff. In August, Surovikin was then stripped of his role as the commander of the Russian aerospace forces due to suspicions that he was linked to the Wagner rebellion.
Other officers have met similar fates. On July 12, Major General Ivan Popov, who led the 58th Combined Arms Army stationed in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhya region, disclosed that he had been relieved of his command after he made complaints to Gerasimov regarding the lack of troop rotations. He also highlighted issues his soldiers were having with counterbattery radar and artillery reconnaissance. Popov’s dismissal indicates that senior military personnel are seemingly unable to report the facts on the ground to their superiors without facing charges of disloyalty or disciplinary action. Such a culture, especially within the Russian military’s highly hierarchal command structure will make it increasingly difficult for commanders to make informed decisions based on accurate information.
Thus far, Putin’s coup-proofing strategy has succeeded in fragmenting the Russian security elite sufficiently to secure his hold on power, despite Prigozhin’s short-lived insubordination. However, these same measures which have enabled Putin to safeguard his rule have seriously undermined Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. The constituent parts of Russia’s defence and security apparatuses fail to act as a whole and there is ample evidence that senior leaders have been promoted on the basis of perceived loyalty over competence. A culture of competition and distrust has hindered cooperation, coordination, and honesty, which has led to poor decision-making, the results of which have played out on the battlefields of Ukraine since February last year.