In the dawn hours of May 3, Moscovites awoke to an unbelievable sight: Two suicide drones had somehow managed to penetrate the city’s air defences and explode on the roof of the Kremlin itself.
Such an attack would have been unthinkable when Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine a year earlier, and yet it was only the beginning. Three weeks later, partisans began raiding Russia’s borders and then a swarm of drones slammed into Moscow’s wealthy suburbs.
In-fighting between Russia’s military and Putin’s warlords is now at fever pitch, Ukraine’s counter-attack is looming, and an opposition politician even went so far as to call for Putin himself to be replaced on state TV earlier this week.
So, is this really the beginning of the end for Russia’s tyrant? ‘Yes,’ believes Luke Coffey, an expert at the Hudson Institute think-tank in Washington – who adds that Putin’s demise will be swiftly followed by the break-up of Russia itself.
‘I agree [that] this is the beginning of the end of Putin – the trajectory now is towards Putin being ousted and the further breakup of the Russian Federation,’ he said.
An opposition politician called for Putin to be replaced on state TV earlier this week. Pictured: Vladimir Putin meets with Eritrea’s President at the Kremlin, May 31, 2023
Two suicide drones managed to penetrate Moscow’s air defences and explode on the roof of the Kremlin, May 3, 2023
Russia as we know it today was born almost 500 years ago when the first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, began conquering lands in the name of the Tsardom of Muscovy.
Over the next 200 years, the Tsardom expanded both into Europe and all the way across to the Pacific Ocean until it was renamed as the Russian Empire by Peter the Great.
The empire fell apart after the First World War and, after a series of revolutions, was replaced by the Soviet Union which itself collapsed in 1991 – from which modern-day Russia emerged. Mr Coffey believes that final collapse is not yet over.
He added: ‘The Soviet Union is still collapsing. When historians write about [it], they will probably identify Feb ’22 [the date of the Ukraine invasion] as the most significant moment of that collapse.
‘The dust is still settling. I believe the 15 countries that emerged in 1991 [when the Soviet Union collapsed] was the safety glass breaking.
‘The next round of shattering will be like a 150-year-old pane of glass breaking in an old house. It will shatter in dangerous ways and won’t be easy to repair or fix.’
Mr Coffey believes the final break-up will begin with the decisive defeat of Russia in Ukraine. That outcome is inevitable, he argues, but is unwilling to say when it will be.
Many hope it will come after Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-attack this summer, but military experts have warned the war may yet have years to run.
A suspected Ukrainian drone appears to explode with a mushroom cloud near Usovo village, which is close to Vladimir Putin’s official residence, May 2023
Smoke rises over Russia’s Belgorod region after Ukraine was purported to have attacked using drones, May 21
A woman looks out of a window of a damaged apartment block following a reported drone attack in Moscow, Russia, May 30, 2023
Whenever Russia’s defeat comes, Mr Coffey argues it will divide the country’s elites into two groups.
The first will be hardliners who believe the war could have been won if only they were in charge. The other will be oligarchs desperate to stop the bloodshed and patch up relations with the West, if only to preserve their own wealth and power.
Either way, he reasons that Putin is ‘toast’ and will end up dead or in exile somewhere.
With the supreme leader gone, Russia’s breakaway regions – awash with soldiers returned from the frontline – will rise up against Moscow and demand independence, he says.
Warlords may also vie with each-other for control, with Putin potentially among them if he can gather enough loyalists, and the Russian Federation will rapidly collapse.
He adds: ‘It will be unpredictable [and] in some places it will be violent.
‘I think you’ll see uprisings among discontented people, Moscow will have to decide which bits and pieces to fight for, which different power-brokers they can engage with to keep their interest in place.
‘There will be a lot of difficult choices to be made and whoever is on top will have to keep an eye on their back.’
Whenever Russia’s defeat comes, Mr Coffey argues it will divide the country’s elites into two groups. Pictured: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu walk in the Kremlin, March 21, 2023
Warlords may also vie with each-other for control, Mr Coffey says. Pictured: Wagner private mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin poses with mercenaries in Bakhmut, Ukraine, May 25, 2023
In-fighting between Russia’s military and Putin’s warlords is now at fever pitch. Pictured: Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya, rides in a modernised T-72 tank
China may try to stake a claim on territory that Beijing believes was unfairly wrested from its grasp by Imperial Russia, and Turkey may step in to protect the Turkic peoples spread out across the country.
And the West is unlikely to sit idly by as a country with 6,000 nuclear warheads and stocks of biological and chemical warheads disintegrates on its doorstep.
Mr Coffey says: ‘I want to make it clear: I’m not advocating for this. The break-up would cause many problems and I’m not sure it is in the West’s interest for it to happen.
‘But I think this is the trajectory regardless. Even if we stopped supplying arms to Ukraine now they would not stop fighting Russia.
‘We need to start thinking about how we would take control of such a situation and get ahead of events. I think it would be very naive for Western policy-makers not to consider this as a possibility.’
James Rogers, co-founder of the Council on Geostrategy, was more hesitant.
He agreed that attacks into Russia are a ‘viable threat’ to Putin and could end up driving a wedge between him and the cabal of elites that prop up his regime, leading to his downfall.
But he cautioned that even if Putin falls, there is no guarantee that whoever came next would end the war and hand Ukraine back its lost territories – which is Kyiv’s ultimate goal.
Putin could end up driving a wedge between him and the cabal of elites that prop up his regime, Rogers said. Pictured: Putin delivers his Victory Day speech in Red square in Moscow, May 9, 2023
Victory Day military parade saw saw a much slimmed down show of might compared to previous years. Only one tank took part – a Second World War-era T-34
‘Victory Day was a sorrowful event,’ Mr Rogers said. Pictured: Vladimir Putin speaks in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in central Moscow, May 9, 2023
Mr Rogers said: ‘They might do, but they might not. Someone even more hardline than Putin could take control of the Kremlin and that effectively puts Ukraine back to square one.
‘The only way to guarantee the return of territories is on the battlefield.’
Going forward, he expects attacks into Russia to continue and to ramp up as the West gives Kyiv more support and the Kremlin’s manpower and stockpiles of weapons are worn down.
‘Victory Day was a sorrowful event,’ he said, pointing to the single Second World War-era tank that appeared during the parade in Red Square.
‘Russia’s most advanced equipment has been ground up and littered across Ukraine. They themselves don’t seem to be able to advance any further.
‘As long as Ukraine continues to get support from the West [then] they have the means to push back. I would expect [the attacks] to escalate, the situation for Russians to deteriorate, and for the sanctions regime to grind them down.’