Russian President Vladimir Putin could face an assassination attempt from his inner circle if they begin to tire of the war in Ukraine, according to a former CIA official.
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow chief of station, told The Daily Beast in an interview that if Putin’s inner circle of top advisers begin to feel on edge about the war, the Russian leader’s position could come under threat.
“Nobody’s going to ask, ‘Hey Vladimir, would you like to leave?’” Hoffman said.
“No. It’s a f****** hammer to the head and he’s dead—or it’s time to go to the sanatorium. They schwack him for it. That’s what they’ll do.”
Hoffman named Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of Putin’s security council; Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service); and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as three members of the Russian president’s inner circle who could potentially pose a significant risk to Putin.
“These guys that are going to [oust him] are going to be so secret about it so that Putin doesn’t find them and kill them first,” he added. “It’ll happen all of a sudden. And he’ll be dead.”
Ousting Putin “a danger”
Andrew Wood, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program and former British ambassador to Russia, told Fortune that losing the war in Ukraine “would be very dangerous” for Putin. But Wood added that ousting Putin could create huge instability in the country because “there is absolutely no mechanism for replacing him.”
“There’s no means of saying who it would be,” he said in a phone call. “And if someone replaced him, that ruler would have some ideas or different approaches that might be better or worse.”
However, he added, “this was common when [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin was approaching his physical end. A lot of people in the West believed someone who was worse would come in after, but that wasn’t the case. Someone with different ideas did come in and produce some change.”
Ronald Marks, a former CIA clandestine service officer, told The Daily Beast that he believed Putin was safe provided that members of Russia’s elite security services remained on his side, noting that Putin has “done a nice job of getting rid of those who aren’t on his side.”
The Russian regime has a history of silencing its critics. Prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is currently incarcerated and was denied an appeal on Tuesday for his lawyers to be permitted to bring recording equipment when they visit him in jail.
Navalny suffered a nearly fatal poisoning in 2020, which UN officials believe happened by the Russian regime’s hand to send a “clear, sinister warning” to anyone wanting to criticize the government.
Russia’s crackdown on critics
Meanwhile, Russia has seen new laws come into force since the invasion of Ukraine in late February that have made it illegal to criticize the war.
Shortly after Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine, Russian media outlets were banned from referring to Moscow’s “special military operation” as an “assault,” “invasion,” or “declaration of war.”
Broadcasters and news websites have faced a crackdown on their coverage of the events in Ukraine, with some of the country’s few remaining independent outlets being taken off the air over their reporting on the war.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update earlier this month that, already, “some high-profile Russian officials have highly likely been sidelined after criticizing the war.”
While few high-ranking Russians have publicly criticized their country’s invasion of Ukraine, some have spoken out against the war.
Oleg Tinkov, who founded one of Russia’s largest banks, was forced to sell his stake in the bank by the Kremlin after he criticized the war as “crazy” on Instagram, the New York Times reported.
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.