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….