The Ukrainian war could end quickly if Vladimir Putin loses his mind ... to a high-velocity projectile. But who will pull the trigger?
Some of you may consider the forced termination of the human contract by nefarious means to be an illegal form of warfare or an unlawful political assassination over a difference of opinion. Although the laws of war do not spare military commanders directing the battlefield from being neutralized by hostile opposing forces, they may not be the deciding factor here of what happens to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Granted, Putin declared himself the de facto commander and strategist of Russian combat forces in Ukraine, but it will not be President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Central Intelligence Agency, or James Bond who will see to his sudden and terminal change of command. If it happens before his natural corporeal expiration date, the most likely culprits will be Russian or hired by Russian entities. They most likely are already within his immediate circle of confidants, protectors or have access to his family and/or secure facilities.
Murder of Tsar Paul I of Russia, March 1801 (1882-1884)
Don't Fear the Reaper
Two ardent activists for democracy in Russia, former world Chess master Garry Kasparov, and exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote an extraordinary piece for Foreign Affairs called “Don’t Fear Putin’s Demise.” They believe internal pressures from frustration about the war and Russian society may offer opportunities for the Russian people to embrace democracy. Kasparov and Khodorkovsky hope that a coalition of Russian opposition can bring about positive post-Putin change without the chaos after a military defeat in Ukraine.
On the other hand, it is not out of the realm of possibility that we could wake up to a world where Putin's "chef" turned mercenary commander, the inherently evil Yevgeny Progozhin, decided that maybe the atomic arsenal of Russia should be under the control of his private army, PMC Wagner. Or a world where the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov has taken all the military equipment given to him by Russia and executes a plan for a nuclear-armed Russo-Islamic emirate that extends from Chechnya to Tatarstan. Such a rapid separation may in turn start a cascade of governors and generals who want their share of the post-Putin pie and ally themselves with an ambitious warlord. All these here-to-fore far-fetched plots require one precipitating event to be viable: a Vladimir Putin who is not just demised, but who has been demised by someone with the means to override all security precautions in Russia … or by dumb luck.
Whether he stumbles out of a skyscraper window, steps into a boobytrapped armored vehicle, drinks a cup of Polonium laced tea, or learns the meaning of "the Russian Bowtie", the fastest way to end the Russian war would be the obvious one; Putin is killed, a successor secures the atomic triad, sues for peace and withdraws Russian forces from occupied territories.
Let us look at the potential tactics, techniques, procedures, and players that could likely ensure Vladimir Putin is time-on-target for a one-way express ticket to the brimstone-lined eternity he so richly deserves.
Unknown artist, Portrait of Ivan VI of Russia, 1742, State Russian museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Ivan IV became czar at three years old, spent the rest of his life imprisoned, and eventually was stabbed to death. There's someone who didn't deserve his fate, even if he grandfather was dubbed "the Terrible."
Who Wants Putin Dead?
No NATO-allied nation-state would ever consider or execute a precision strike on Russia to kill Putin. That's unquestionable and it would constitute a declaration of war between the thirty-two-nation alliance that no one wants to see. But internal plots by Russian citizens are not only likely but already in the works. In September 2022 Ukrainian General Director of Military Intelligence claimed Putin had already survived one plot since the invasion began.
There are several categories of Russian people and entities who would like to see Vladimir Putin removed from the earthly stage. The oligarchy is losing its vast streams of wealth well worth trillions of dollars with no end of global sanctions in sight. With an inability to travel globally, limits on goods that money can purchase outside of Russia, and losing market share to the Chinese, the oligarchy will eventually reach a breaking point. Applying a ten-cent bullet to stop a multi-trillion-dollar hemorrhage may appeal to them.
Although Putin controls them with personal intimidation, it may at some point become attractive for them to buy the strength and loyalty of the army and the national police. Additionally, Putin has set up several figures as his strongest supporters and empowered them with military capacity that could be turned against him.
Strongmen such as Prigozhin and Kadyrov are practitioners of raw power. And they may sense a weakness in Putin where the oligarchy may support their willingness to change the government. But these strong men are just petty dictators themselves. Any application of power by them will result in the cooperation of military forces and would most likely lead to a civil war. No matter who decides to assert themselves, the Russian General Staff of the Armed Forces must be co-opted at the highest levels to bring that raw military power to a coup d'état.
It is also inauspicious that Vladimir Putin recently humiliated some of the top power brokers in Russia, including the Director of Russian intelligence, the Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, General Gerasimov, and even the Commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine. The generals are powerful men who may have loyal subordinates, at least 300,000 men at arms, and strategic weapons under their control. Should the military commanders of Russia decide a change of command is necessary, it is their influence that could sway other generals and battle commanders to answer only to their commands.
Alternatively, there is potential for a common citizen or government worker who has proximity to Putin in the flesh to take the opportunity to prove him mortal after all. Many national leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were killed when they came upon both planned killers and revenge-motivated individuals in target of opportunity attacks that changed history as well as the political landscape.
President William McKinley was assassinated in a focused assassination in 1901 by an American anarchist. The 1914 execution of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo by a lone attacker arguably started World War I. Mahatma Gandhi was gunned down by pistol-armed assassins as was Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme as he walked from the theater. In 1984 Gandhi's daughter, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards with their government-furnished pistol and submachinegun.
Disgruntled and defeated Russian soldiers were motivated to change their lot in World War One. In 1917 they mutinied to follow the communists to power and established the Soviet Union for nearly seventy years. The potential for this to happen again is speculative, but it just requires a covert organization and leadership to give the army a leading role to end Putin's dictatorship.
Any number of people could form assassination plots and find an opportune time to overwhelm Putin's immediate security. In 1944, German Colonel Klaus Von Stauffenberg took part in Operation Valkyrie, an assassination plot to kill Adolph Hitler that involved dozens of members of the Nazi Army General Staff that almost succeeded. Valkyrie was just one of as many as forty-two attempts to kill him. Hitler was wounded when a bomb exploded. The attempt was foiled by the bomb being moved behind a thick table leg. Hitler executed the plotters by firing squad or by hanging them from piano wire. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed at a military parade by Islamic terrorists who armed themselves with live ammunition and attacked him during a military parade commemorating the 1973 War.
Putin has tens of thousands of nominal protectors in multiple layers of security, but a broad conspiracy, like in the examples above could form. And when the removal starts armed combat between presidential security, the Rozvgardia, the intelligence apparatus, the police, and the army could kick off a full-scale Russian Civil War.
To have any chance of success plotters must have access to the target's inner sanctum or movement schedule. Why are movement schedules important? Because state-level executive protective service movement intelligence is among the most highly guarded secrets in the world. Knowing the precise location of the victim at any given time is critical to remove them from power, at what Elon Musk calls "assassination coordinates."
To use it for execution, it must be of such unquestionably high quality that it does not matter if there are changes to the watch schedule or the destination. Rebel spies in the protection service would know not just the target but also any decoys, body doubles, and knowledge of which security guards are armed with live ammunition and in what quantity.
By knowing the routes in and out of the protected areas and with advanced knowledge of the screening procedures, a would-be assassin from outside the protective team could be able to carry out a deliberate attack or watch for pop-up opportunities to attack. When moving by vehicles, helicopters, or other conveyance, most protective details will have at a minimum three to four alternate routes that can be changed at random.
When I was carrying out protective details in Iraq it was under the most severe terrorist surveillance and a suicide bomb threat in the world. To maximize uncertainty, I planned up to twelve different routes and rolled a pair of dice randomly to determine that day's routes. These routes would have multiple clearing and counter-surveillance teams and decoy teams to introduce confusion to assassination teams. In three years, we were never attacked except at the one consistent choke point where every security team was deliberately routed by the US Army. The assassins made this location work for them, and we lost seven people to one suicide bomber.
It can happen here, and it did. "Scene of the daring attempt to assassinate President McKinley. Drawn from a description by telegraph." September 7, 1901. Front page, The San Francisco Call. The upside? This assassination gave us Teddy Roosevelt.
Tools of the Assassination Trade
Any weapon can be used to neutralize a national leader. Putin prefers poisons but most of his enemies are killed by being thrown out of windows or small arms. Capture by rebels and immediate execution by gunfire awaited the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family as it did Libyan leader Mummar al-Qaddafi and Romanian dictator Nicholae Ceaușescu. Each was placed against the wall and relieved of their national responsibility in bloody pools and shallow graves.
Explosive devices of all sorts are the most likely weapon used to kill national leaders. Some of the more impressive classes such as suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED) driven by suicide bombers have been successful. In 2004 the president of the Iraq Interim Governing Council, Ezzedine Salim, was assassinated by a suicide car bomber on a boulevard that lead to a US Army-controlled gate near my safe house. I responded to the blast and saw he and his security team were burned alive in their vehicle. A few months later his replacement narrowly survived assassination when an SVBIED prematurely detonated along the same route. The torso of the bomber flew two blocks and landed in our foyer.
In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State terrorist assassinations sometimes used super-sized SVBIEDs. These were tractor-trailers or dump trucks with 10,000 pounds or more of explosives that were so massive there was virtually no chance of survival. Suicide bombers killed many leaders including Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto and Indian President Rajiv Gandhi. Some bombs were cleverly concealed in human body cavities in both men and women, as well as in the corpses of babies. This method allows explosives to be hidden to allow them to penetrate security and kill their target. The attempted assassination of Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef involved a body cavity-borne suicide attack from al-Qaeda in 2009.
A suicide bomber assassinated Harvard-educated Benazir Bhutto more than 15 years ago, killing 20 and injuring 70. The case has yet to be solved and the senior prosecutor died in a terrorist attack.
Can the Military Do It?
In the case where traditional military weapons are used, the leader has less chance of survival. Let's speculate that rebels or coup plotters gain control of national strategic attack assets, such as a Tu–22M3 BACKFIRE bomber launching the old but massive AS-15 KENT missile. If they can get to those aircraft, then they can gain control of the Mig-31K FOXHOUND. Both aircraft can launch the KINZHAL (NATO codename: AS-24 KILLJOY) Hypersonic missile.
The incredible speed makes it nearly impossible to intercept once launched, and its conventional explosive payload would likely cause a complete collapse of the aboveground infrastructure supporting all but the deepest nuclear command posts. If more than one of Russia's hypersonic missiles were used to target a Putin sequestered in an underground bunker, he or his staff might not survive – or he could be trapped/entombed for days or weeks, more than long enough for the coup plotters could take control of the nation.
Even older conventional weapons that fly lower and slower, such as the KALIBR (NATO codename: SS-N-27/30 SIZZLER) cruise missiles or the new Iranian-supplied drones, could be turned against their masters by someone with authority to launch them. All it takes is compliant missile launch teams and the exact coordinates for where they should explode. If Putin is there he could be killed or injured. But as Mummar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein learned, a national leader on the run is sometimes safer in a dacha than a command post ... to a point.
It is widely assumed that the recent emergency placement of PANTSIR (NATO codename: SA-22 GREYHOUND) surface-to-air missile defense systems on top of key military buildings all over Moscow are intended to protect the city from a possible Ukrainian drone attack. However, it is equally possible that Putin's paranoia about internal enemies made him take the precaution to protect himself against Russia's own aerial weapons arsenal or rogue air force assets.
You know this one.
The Worst Case Scenarios
If these scenarios sound incredible but feel plausible, then the most extreme Tom Clancy-esque scenarios are equally possible. Putin could find he is under threat from a massive coup d'état made up of an internal military-oligarch alliance that has significant military assets.
If the Russian General Staff goes over to the coup, they could also have access to one or more Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Rebel coup plotters could choose to utilize WMDs to definitively decapitate Putin's ability to command the security or armed forces. More importantly, they would want to stop his ability to communicate with the Russian people. Additionally, cutting off his military communications to the command of forces with atomic bombs or military forces not under rebel control would be imperative. No one in the military hierarchy should be allowed to answer emergency calls coming from whichever underground secure command post Putin would find himself in. Enter the potential for WMDs to guarantee the head of the snake is cut off.
Military or oligarch-backed paramilitary units may have an easier time acquiring small stockpiles of chemical weapons such as Sarin, Mustard, Phosgene, Tabun, VX, or Novichok chemical agents. They would likely be most readily found in WMD arsenals in air-droppable bombs on the bases of the Russian Strategic Air Forces. But to take down the regime itself they must be employed in such a way that hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of civilian casualties, would likely be inflicted to kill Putin or neutralize his immediate protectors. In such a coup scenario the armed forces, police, and Putin's internal guards (the Rosgvardia) would end up fighting for control of WMD weapons depots, military bases, and cities all over Russia. That would be an open state of civil war.
Hopefully, the Russian-at-Civil-War scenario is so unthinkable that the decapitation happens quickly and definitively. A strong prominent figure must quickly stand over the body of a demised Putin that can assure the nation and the world that the Russian NBC arsenal is secure and under control. However, a character such as Prigozhin may live up to his cartoonishly evil soul in that he would expend any weapon to gain power, even if it causes the fracturing of Russia and leads to a civil war.
Even the most secure nuclear, biological, and chemical secure command post still requires power to communicate. Even if connected directly to a nuclear power plant, the transmission lines are vulnerable to being cut off. The most self-sufficient underground bunker will eventually need fuel for backup diesel generators.
Bunker 42, once reserved for Stalin.
Yes, It Can Get Worse
The single worst assassination scenario would involve the entire world. Military coup plotters may find themselves in a situation where Putin is in an underground nuclear command post and the only way to ensure he would not survive is to use a tactical nuclear weapon to vaporize him and his regime supporters.
The stability of the nation and by extension, the world, requires that Russia's most potent assets, the nuclear triad of land-based ballistic missiles, air-launched atomic bombs, and submarine launched ballistic missiles be under centralized control. Whoever controls Russia's atomic arsenal controls Russia. Anyone seeking power will need to bring the command into the conspiracy.
It's entirely possible that the plotters could gain access to the arming codes if they control the armed forces. Then again, in 2021 the entire secure radio communications suite including 30 different communications systems for Russia's IL–80 aerial command post, known as the Doomsday airplanes, were stolen from a secure military base. Granted, this theft was likely an espionage-funded operation to acquire incredibly sensitive communications gear. Military coup plotters would certainly have no problem commandeering an entire IL-80 aerial command post and perhaps disable the rest of the fleet so that only the person leading the coup could communicate with Russia's nuclear triad. The same goes for the Russian military satellite networks. Whoever controls it controls Putin and his regime’s ability to coordinate.
Technically, if the much-maligned Russian military gets deeply involved, Putin could find himself entombed in a bunker-like Adolf Hitler in Berlin's last days … with just as much fighting in Moscow. If this occurs, Putin will likely have the same bleak options as Hitler had. The armed security staffers with him would also have to choose their own options. Their horrible choices would be to die by nerve gas, flame, radiation, or explosive entombment under tons of concrete. Someone with a gun may decide their only survival option is to terminate Putin's command with a single bullet and surrender.
All these scenarios may sound highly implausible. yet, in the event of a real attempt to take control of the government, every minute of every day could find us living in a bad version of a Jack Ryan TV episode, minus a hero to save the day.
Alternatively, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin could consume one croissant too many and drop dead of a heart attack or of just old age. As the Ukraine war goes on the likelihood of a natural death lessens.
Finally, there is the bottom-line question: Should Putin die or be isolated in a coup; will the replacement be better or worse? We will all find out, sooner or later.
Malcolm Nance is a U.S. Intelligence Expert on national security, counter-terrorism, intelligence, and domestic extremism. He is a bestselling author (The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West). Honorably retired as a U.S. Navy Senior Chief, he is now an Ukrainian Army Foreign Legionnaire. You can read more of his writing on Substack: Special Intelligence.