A whiteboard with pictures of Russian leaders.

2023-11-23 Coup d’état - Who is most likely to kill Putin.

This is a website I’d like to see but ideally it should be run by a Ukrainian. If anyone picks up the button please let me know and I’ll put a link here. Below I will tell you why this is important. I don’t actually know who is but it makes a good example so I’ve picked a name at semi-random and will use it NAFO style to create some DIP.

Colonel Yevgeny Nikolayevich Zhuravlyov

Role: 1st Guards Tank Army - Western Military District
Score: 80%
How far outside Putin’s circle: 8/10
How big a force under control 8/10
How big a failure: 8/10

Over a year ago my friend Simon asked me how I thought the Russia invasion will end. I said it was most likely to end with a Coup d’état or a revolution. From that I have to explain myself, which is how we got here.

I have a question for you. What does science fiction and real life game theory have in common? Both seem to mess with time travel in a way that defies the laws of physics on causality. Yet game theory is real.

It works because the human mind can project to the future and calculate the consequences, then go back in time from that future (i.e. the present) and respond based on those future events. Its best explained in the Prisoners Dilemma in game theory. The consequences of this are very interesting, especially in war with dictators and this psychology presents Ukraine with an incredible opportunity. It is possible to bring down Putin with a single page website. Now I don’t think I’ll get the coverage to make it happen but I’ll lay it out for you anyway in the hopes some Russian speaking Ukrainian makes it happen.

The Blind Weak 'Strong' Man

The starting point is that the strong man style of leadership loved by dictators is actually incredibly weak. It works by being stronger than your rivals, which has one massive fundamental problem. You have to be stronger than your rivals. Unlike Putin, Zelenskiy is there because he won an election (not a rigged circus). Everyone around him is ideologically aligned to the preservation of the state. The president, any president anywhere is fundamentally unimportant compared to the preservation of the democracy they lead. What this means is that no one in his circle is gunning for Zelenskiy with the aim of taking power. Even with guns you wouldn’t take legitimacy and so couldn’t take over. Everyone is against you. Something dictators also don’t understand is that Zelenskiy is also there for the preservation of the state, not himself. He wants a better Ukraine for his family, for everyone. Everyone in the Ukraine’s presidents circle is on for the same goal, even Zelenskiy.

In a nutshell Zelenskiy works to support Ukraine where as Russia works to support Putin. More than that though, Zelenskiy and his team are ideologically driven to support the idea of a free and democratic Ukraine, whereas Putin is only after personal power as are those under him. You can immediately see where the strength is in democracy verses the house of cards of a dictatorship. You have the will for personal gain in Russia verses an ideology in Ukraine and ideology is always stronger.

So how does this work? Well, in the self-interest game, what becomes most prized is loyalty. You know that if everyone is knives out for gain, you don’t want anyone who is behind you to shove their knife in. The loyalty game comes with its opposite, which is the blame game. Democracies have open systems which for the most part, limits the blame game as everyone can see the truth.

Somewhere without principles or law, such as the Kremlin, is so open to corruption that anyone nice is evolved out of the system… they are killed for personal gain. Therefore, everyone in the senior power circles is someone who is ready for a knife fight. To get ahead everyone will be doing their best to show the most loyalty to everyone while looking to strengthen their position in case of a knife fight. However you can’t be loyal to everyone so at the same time they are all trying to not commit to anything. It’s the totally loyal yet do noting mentality. It’s often why dictators think they really are the only one to save the country, because no else seems to sort any problems. The fact they get to make up what is a problem is neither here nor there.

The inner circle will then become made up of two types of people. The true loyalists who hold some kind of ideological belief in the dictator and pragmatic loyalists who will throw anyone who displays disloyalty under a bus (maybe literally), to gain loyalty points with the big boss. As pragmatic loyalists start achieving things, they retain value and so people who get put in the position to show who they favour do so. This is the first bit of faction lock-in as if anyone shows they favour someone else they are not trusted by those they didn’t favour, which is everyone else. When old man A asks you to take from old man B, you will have to pick one. From this we get factions, which is an excellent way to breed paranoia in a dictator.

We are not at the game theory yet but all this is important as it lays out a critical environmental state. No information can be trusted as accurate. The dictator creates the environment where they are fundamentally blind.

Under this system, when things are going great, everyone gains and the system works for those in the knife game. When things go bad however it starts to get a bit more tricky. No one wants to be scapegoated for losses where someone more senior says ‘not me, it was this idiot that failed you, don’t worry, I’ve had him shot’. So bad news doesn’t travel. It also doesn’t travel up the chain of the command as you don’t want to be the ‘him’ that was shot. The whole chain is blind.

The dictator doesn’t actually do the front line fighting, their army does. But to fight on the scale we have now we need thousands of people to fight, and someone need to direct those people. The army will always need these people so even if you eliminate them another is needed to be made. There will always be a colonel.

Game Theory

Now this is where the fun bit starts in people heads. When they fail and headquarters calls them to explain themselves Russia will start shooting its own leaders until one moves on Putin. These are their choices and remember that both sides also know all this:

Colonel’s choices
I failed to take the unrealistic objective set by my superior. I am going to be blamed and they are going to shoot me to silence me claiming it was punishment.

  • I go, they yell at me, I come back here and probably die, maybe put on a suicide mission.

  • I go, they shoot me.

  • I don’t go, they get suspicious that they can’t control me, I get marked for death

  • I go with my army. I make it all the way to the top and kill the president.

  • I go with my army. I don’t go all the way, I am the enemy of the state, I get killed.

Putin’s Choices

  • He comes. We discipline. He gets sent back. He hates me now. Risk is up. Put him on a more risky front and hope he gets killed.

  • He comes. We shoot him for failure.

  • He doesn’t come. A real risk. Send in the FSB.

Initially, the first choices will hold. The Colonel will come for a yelling at and will go back. But if the leaders start dying, they won’t want to go back. Because of that, they will start getting shot. Once the likelihood of a yelling goes down and the likelihood of being shot goes up, the only survivable option for the Colonel is a full coup d’état.

There is yet more game theory fun to be had and here we learn about princes, crowns and thrones! People may think a single force will be crushed by the rest of the army. It won’t. The force only has to be bigger than the one guarding the throne. If you are wondering, the throne is in Moscow and the crown is Moscow. The reason is that this coup might work, putting the leader in charge. You do not want to fight the king who can kill you, and this colonel might be king. A coup leader is therefore a Prince. The best thing you can do is not choose a side, and so if everyone thinks this then the prince is more likely to succeed. Nobody wants to be the first antelope to try to cross the crocodile river, and so the entire army will do nothing. Only those units that can travel from the inner circle controlled area, who fear for their families being shot, will go. As air is fastest, you’ll see that first. The colonel will know this and so bring AA and shoot anything heading inbound regardless. You’ve seen this before…

Princes and Kings

If you think Putin can simply hide in a bunker then pop out later you are wrong. If the colonel takes Moscow and sits at Putins table, he wears the crown. There is no information and so Putin looks weak. The problem of being the strong man is that you have to actually be the strongest man. Putin will suffer the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi. Probably found wet and dirty in a large concrete pipe before being shot on sight to remove him as a risk. They might even yell “he’s coming right at me!” before shooting.

As I’ve stated many times. Ukraine can’t loose this war Ukraine won’t stop and the West won’t allow them to lose. The side effect of that is that they must win. As Russia begins to loose there will be coups. There might even be regional break aways. Ultimately Ukraine will push Russia out but I think it more likely Russia will call them home. Either a colonel will solidify popularity with the troops by pulling them away from death or Putin will call them home to fight a coup or regional break away. I would say Ukraine will need to import the levels of pop-corn needed but actually they are the one country who would be supplying that volume.

All this won’t work on a democracy so I don’t mind explaining here but now for the really really really fun part. Game theory is about how people react to knowing everyones choices and the likelihood. If you have a list of the Russian army controlling colonels and the likelihood of attacking Putin, you increase the interest of the FSB. With that you increase the likelihood of the colonels not wanting to go when called and the rest dominoes from there. So, with a one page website in Russian, it is entirely possible Ukraine can tip the balance and have the Russian army defeat itself. The really sweet part, is this is the very cheapest of information operations with the most effect. Something Putin would actually love yet its going to kill him.


I don’t know who is most likely. I picked a plausible sounding one. Could a Russian speaking Ukrainain please make this?