VLADIMIR Putin faces being killed in a coup as Russian generals are furious over his disastrous handling of the war in Ukraine.
The ailing autocrat could be taken out by his own security services in a death that could be quietly covered up as simply a result of his reportedly failing health – such as a heart attack.
And then Vlad could be replaced by an even more hardline leader who could send troops back to Kyiv, according to leading security expert Dr Robert Thornton.
Dr Thornton, a professor in conflict and security studies at King's College London, told The Sun Online that Russian military generals are losing patience with their leader and want him gone.
"The FSB [Russia's security service] think that Putin needs to be removed because he’s gone soft on Ukraine," he said.
"He’s pulled back from Kyiv. He’s only now concentrating on the Donbass."
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Dr Thornton said Russia's military intelligence unit, the GRU, could be best placed to remove Putin and could move soon if they see troops lose ground in eastern Ukraine.
"They have the intelligence to do it," he told The Sun Online.
"If you want to conduct a palace coup, you want to keep it very secret and very quiet.
"You’d get the GRU to do it and they’ve been given more and more power over the last few weeks."
He said small band of senior security officers could approach Putin with an ultimatum to leave office or be killed.
"Then you get people on television to say that Putin has not been well and then you have a new leader," the professor explained.
"You’d get someone to say: ‘Poor Mr Putin had a heart attack, from all the strain of his special military operation and we’ve put so-in-so in charge'."
The Russia expert said this wouldn't be a stretch for Russians to believe because it happened with Leonid Brezhnev, a former Soviet leader, and other communist figureheads in the 1970s.
"They said ‘oh, they were ill’ but really they were dead'."
It comes as Putin comes under mounting pressure from his generals to dramatically turn around his disastrous military campaign in Ukraine.
Russia has now lost an estimated 30,000 soldiers, seen thousands of destroyed tanks and aircraft, and even lost their Black Sea flagship the Moskva.
Burnt-out carcasses of Russian vehicles litter the Ukrainian countryside in what been dubbed "tank graveyards" – along with the corpses of thousands of Russian soldiers piling up.
Some 100 days into this conflict and Russia has still not yet to achieved any of its major military objectives.
Depleted and exhausted Russian forces were forced to withdraw from Kyiv in April.
And they had also been losing ground in the Donbass with Kharkiv being the latest city to be "liberated" by Ukrainian troops.
It's this level of destruction and the "huge casualties" that are turning the hearts and minds of Russia's officers against Putin, Dr Thornton claims.
"The army can't go on haemorrhaging the number of people it is," he said.
"It is being bled white. It’s running out of troops, it’s running out of missiles, it’s running out of everything.
"There is bound to be morale issues in the army and leadership issues and people asking why we are doing this.
"There’s bound to be a groundswell of junior officers and those at the lower echelons of the Russian army who are saying ‘what are we doing this for?’ and this might percolate upwards to the more senior ranks."
In the event of a coup, Russian generals would surreptitiously withdraw their best units from the frontline and march them towards Moscow, the professor said.
"They’re the best troops, therefore they’re the most trusted troops, therefore you can tell them what to do and they’ll obey," the former Brit infantryman said.
"Their movements would be picked up by satellites and signal traffic and that would be a sure sign that something bad was happening for Putin."
"Then there would be meetings of your of officers, but they’ll be very secretive about it all. Officers would have to do it very, very quietly as they wouldn’t want to alert Putin supporters or tell anyone in the West."
But the defence academic warned a coup lead to a worse outcome for Ukraine and the West.
"If you tell the military to perform a military coup, are they going to listen?
"And if we have a coup to replace Putin, he’s going to be replaced with someone more hardlined. Someone who is harder in the Ukraine war than Putin.
He said Putin could be replaced by the General Valery Gerasimov, who heads Russia's army, or ultranationalist Alexander Bortnikov, who leads the FSB.
"The Russians have been told they’re at war against the Nazis, so whoever takes over can’t suddenly say, ‘oh, we give up. We withdraw from Ukraine.'
"That would be like saying ‘oh, we’ve been defeated by the Nazis' and no leader in Russia would be able to live with that."
He added: "I do fear the use of tactical nuclear weapons to send a message from the Russian military that they’re serious about Ukraine, so you might see a small city hit by a nuclear missile.
"That could happen if the hardliners get in, or even if Putin stays, as they’ll want to send a message in line with Russian doctrine of Udar, which means massive shock in Russian. You would shock your enemy into surrender and you win."
There’s no easy way out for Ukraine or for Russia, the professor said.
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"How do you organise a peace deal with who the Russians claim are Nazis and who the Ukrainians claim are guys behaving like Nazis? I can’t see a resolution.
"Either way, Putin isn’t going to be around for much longer. Either he dies naturally or he gets removed by a coup. That’s the way I see it."
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