When Vladimir Putin was asked at his annual marathon press conference whether he feared the possibility of a “palace revolution” at some point in the future, the Russian president cracked a smile. “I can assure you that we don’t have palaces, so a palace coup isn’t really possible,” he said. Immediately photographs of the vast mansions of some of Putin’s inner circle, photographed from the air by anti-corruption campaigners, began doing the rounds online.
But the question last week had a more serious substance to it. While a popular revolution against corrupt officials has never looked very likely in Russia, what about a split in the elites?
Falling oil prices have combined with western sanctions to create the worst economic crisis of Putin’s 15 years in power. With oil revenues tailing off sharply, on the one hand it will expose how little has been done to diversify the Russian economy during the boom years, while on the other the amount of money to share among the group of billionaires around Putin will shrink dramatically.
Part of the rationale behind western sanctions against people in Putin’s inner circle was to harm them and prompt them to pressure the leader. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate, and the political turmoil continues, one school of thought suggests Putin could be in trouble from within his own inner circle.
Most Russian officials feel the west is to blame for apparently “instigating” the Maidan protests in Kiev, but many are privately uneasy at the way Putin responded. For those in the inner circle, sanctions have in some cases meant losing business, property and travel opportunities in the west. Those affected have been falling over themselves to insist publicly that their personal pain is a small price to pay for the revival of a Great Russia, but what they think in private may be another matter. Even among those ideologically in tandem with Putin, if their vast wealth begins to be threatened their loyalty may waver.