Vladimir Putin’s ship of fools is sinking fast. Will he take everyone down with him?

<span>Photograph: Gavriil Grigorov/AP</span>
Photograph: Gavriil Grigorov/AP

More than ever, Vladimir Putin resembles the captain of the Titanic: steaming full speed ahead towards disaster, deluded by inaccurate assumptions about his ship’s invincibility, and blind to darkly looming hazards.

Everything the captain thinks he knows is wrong, the modern-day treasure hunter, Brock Lovett, says in the 1997 movie. And like the Titanic’s lookouts, wrong-headed Putin does not spot the iceberg until too late. There’s no avoiding catastrophe.

In Ukraine, that was not necessarily true until now. Putin’s speech last week, mobilising reserves, preparing territorial annexations, and threatening nuclear war, might easily have followed a different tack. Instead of escalating, he could have claimed victory, declared a ceasefire.

An offer of negotiations would have wrongfooted Kyiv, stymying its advance, freezing the conflict and dividing Moscow’s enemies. He could have won time to regroup. He could even have put his hand up, swallowed humble pie.

But he didn’t do any of that. Ever resentful and vindictive, Putin lacks the necessary courage and imagination. He got it wrong, again. And so a critical moment passed. Now it’s Russia’s regime, not Ukraine, that faces shipwreck.

From the moment he skulked into the limelight in 1999, using suspect terror bombings to fortify his image as a “kill them in a shithouse” tough guy, Putin looked like a wrong un. And the sceptical observers, it transpires, were right.

The tragic sinking in 2000 of the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, with the loss of more than 100 lives, gave an early glimpse of Putinism. He was slow to react, seemed uncaring and callous, and furiously rejected criticism.

Over the ensuing decades, Putin has run Russia the way his KGB cold war handlers taught him to run operations: co-opt, bribe or intimidate the people you need, silence or eliminate those you don’t. Corpses continue to pile up behind his throne.

During his national TV address, Putin’s lack of basic political skills was matched by a chilling absence of human warmth and animation. He might have been one of Gogol’s Dead Souls. His eyes were cold and lifeless as the grave.

The extent to which Putin is getting it wrong again over Ukraine is stupefying. The sheer scale of strategic failure is truly epic. Ukraine, a fragile democracy racked by political feuding and endemic corruption, has been united in nationhood in defiance of the aggressor.

The Nato alliance, blamed by Putin for causing the conflict and denigrated by his admirer, Donald Trump, is stronger than ever. European defence spending is rocketing. Neutrals Sweden and Finland scramble to join.

In sharp contrast, the poor performance of Moscow’s once-respected armed forces, their battlefield embarrassments, logistical nightmares and weak leadership, have exploded the myth of Russian superpower. That bubble has permanently popped.

Russia’s economy is bleeding out. And despite western worries about the Kremlin propaganda offensive in Africa and Asia, it is largely isolated internationally. In March, 141 out of 193 countries condemned the invasion in a UN vote. Most of the remainder abstained.

As the war hits home, Putin is blamed for everything that’s gone wrong, before and since

Last week the UN general assembly overruled Moscow and allowed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to make a virtual address, sketching a path to peace. He gained a standing ovation – and the initiative.

Even Putin was forced to take notice when China, hitherto straddling the fence, expressed “concern” at the damage he is doing. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, scolded him: “Today’s era is not an era of war”.

Kremlin strategists may argue they can live without India’s approval. But Russia increasingly needs China as a diplomatic partner, military ally, and market for its sanctioned oil, gas and arms exports.

The war is fundamentally shifting the power balance in Beijing’s favour. “That asymmetry is destined to become only more pronounced in the coming years as Putin’s regime depends on Beijing for its survival,” wrote analyst Alexander Gabuev. Putin was turning Russia into a “vassal state”.

None of these blunders takes into account the war’s destabilising impact on what was once called Russia’s “near abroad”. Old enmities and unresolved grievances are re-igniting as local rivals sense Kremlin weakness.

Renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, former Soviet republics, is one flashpoint – not helped by US Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan-style meddling last week. Central Asia is smouldering. Meanwhile, Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, and breakaway Moldova gingerly joined the EU’s membership queue in June.

The people of Belarus are awaiting their chance, too. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who was robbed of her 2020 presidential election victory, predicts a democratic revolution could erupt at any time.

Alexander Lukashenko’s Moscow-backed regime is “ripe for destruction”, she wrote. When that happens, Putin will lose his “Belarusian ‘balcony’, which looms over eastern Europe and provides strategic access to Poland and the Baltic states”.

So much for Putin’s Peter the Great fantasy of a new Russian imperial age. Dictatorship or not, how can anyone with such a uniquely incompetent record expect to remain in power much longer?

Related: Putin needs nothing short of a miracle to avoid a devastating defeat in Ukraine | Olga Chyzh

As the war hits home, Putin is blamed for everything that’s gone wrong, before and since. Anti-mobilisation street protests and an exodus of fleeing conscripts are the latest omens of change. Additional, prominent voices are raised in opposition every day. The elite swivels.

What happened last week was not even mostly about Ukraine. It was about the future of Russia, the dangerous, desperate unravelling of its regime, and whether what follows will be more democratic, more law-abiding, less aggressive.

The Russian people, not the western powers or regional neighbours, will ultimately decide. But Putin’s reign of impunity is drawing to a close. Like the Titanic’s captain, vainly peering into the enveloping gloom, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Putin’s ship of fools is holed beneath the waterline. He’s going down. The question is, will he take everyone down with him?

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