Putin navigates shoals of sea disaster

Yesterday, Russia relented and asked Britain and Norway for rescue help.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, closeted with close advisers at the Black Sea resort of Dagomys, yesterday made his first public statement about the intensifying drama playing out on the floor of the Barents Sea.

"Critical," he said of rescue efforts and the condition of the 116 crewmen trapped aboard the stranded Russian submarine Kursk, as Russia relented and asked Britain and Norway for help.

Any Western leader might rush to the scene of such a high-profile accident. But while Mr. Putin formally put the mission under his "personal control," analysts say distance may be his best strategy. However the mission pans out, Putin could use the sinking of the football stadium-size attack sub to underline his message that Russia needs deep military reforms, bigger defense budgets, and a faster pace of modernization. "The brass are quaking in their boots, wondering who will be blamed for this disaster," says Pavel Ivanov, an analyst with the nongovernmental Institute of National Security in Moscow. "For Putin, it's an opportunity to sweep the board and rearrange things at the top. He will descend on the military leadership like a cold shower after this is over."

Official Russian statements on the crisis have reversed direction several times on the causes, extent, and human costs of the accident. And it would not be the first time a Kremlin leader has turned disaster to political advantage. In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear-power station in Ukraine exploded, scattering radioactive fallout as far away as Western Europe. For several days, the Soviet Union refused to admit the disaster had happened. But when reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally broke the silence, he blamed old-fashioned habits and conservative officials for the tragedy.

"Gorbachev isolated his opponents in the bureaucracy and convinced society of the need for more openness and new ways of doing things," says Yury Levada, director of the independent Center for Public Opinion Studies in Moscow. "Putin faces a more complex situation with this submarine accident, but if he is deft, it certainly need not hurt him."

Putin seized the public imagination last year after terrorist apartment bombs killed 300 Russians and pushed society to the verge of hysteria. Pledging to restore order, tighten discipline, and revive Russian greatness, then-Prime Minister Putin began an "antiterrorist" war against the rebel republic of Chechnya that won him wide public acclaim.

After being appointed acting president on the heels of Boris Yeltsin's resignation in December, Putin calibrated his image as the man who could reverse a decade of national drift and disarray by ruthlessly tackling problems at their source.

"Putin's great talent is his intuitive grasp of the public mood," says Yelena Petrenko, an analyst with the Public Opinion Foundation, an independent Moscow-based polling agency. "Someone might say that disasters like this drama with the Kursk show he has not kept his promises, but almost no one is saying that. Instead, he will easily convince people that he needs more political leeway to deal with the culprits and set things in order."

Nevertheless, Putin will have to navigate cautiously through the minefield the Kursk situation presents. Newspapers owned by the powerful tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, yesterday cast the Kremlin as guilty for the confused and bungled rescue operation.

"If the crew of the Kursk is not saved, the reputation of the Russian government will be lost beyond hope," declared the headline in the Berezovsky-owned Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which is close to powerful Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, published a front-page photo of Putin in naval uniform, a snide reminder that the president spent a night on an atomic submarine last April and praised the submarine fleet as Russia's future military mainstay.

Most explosive is the issue of foreign assistance in the rescue effort. The Kremlin rejected US and British offers to help Tuesday, saying Russia has more than enough resources to do the job. But a telephone poll conducted by the Gusinsky-owned Ekho Moskvy radio station yesterday found that 85 percent of 4,284 respondents thought the government was wrong to reject outside help. (Yesterday, Britain flew a minisubmarine and crew to Norway to stand by in case they're needed.)

That seemed borne out by an informal survey of about a dozen Muscovites yesterday, only one of whom thought the sanctity of Russian military secrets should take precedence over the lives of the beleaguered submarine crew.

"People are more important than national pride," says Natalya Kovalyova, a young accountant.

A naval captain, Vladimir Nikolashyn, says everything should be done to save the crew. "I'm not sure foreign methods would work with our equipment, but it seems a sin not to try," he says. "State secrets are relative, human life is absolute."

Another painful issue creeping into the Russian media is the anxiety of submariners' families with members serving in the Northern Fleet, who still have not been told who, exactly, is aboard the stricken ship. "It is really agonizing for families to wait like this," says Mr. Ivanov. "Submarines have rotating shifts, so there are potentially hundreds of sailors who might be on the Kursk. But neither the families of those who are actually aboard, nor all the families of those who could conceivably be aboard are being told the truth."

But as long as he keeps his distance, the public may not associate Putin with these problems. "Tragedies like this do not hurt Putin, so far," says Ms. Petrenko. "His public support remains very high and stable."

No one questioned in Moscow streets yesterday associated Putin with the disaster. "We have accidents in Russia all the time," says pensioner Irina Naumova. "This is our national flaw, we are irresponsible, lazy, and undisciplined. I don't particularly like Putin, but I can't blame him for what happened to that submarine."

Others make a point that Putin no doubt likes. "Russians don't move until they're pushed. We need a leader who will really crack the whip," says Alexei Bogomolov, a young policeman.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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