If President Vladimir Putin was counting on his popularity as a can-do leader to carry him through his first major crisis in office, he may have misjudged the Russian people.
The president's reputation continued to plummet as hopes dwindled for the rescue of 118 crewmen trapped for more than a week aboard a sunken nuclear submarine in the frigid Barents Sea.
Speaking at the Kremlin yesterday, Mr. Putin said, "With sorrow in our hearts and ... tears in our eyes, we are following all that is happening." He added, "Until the last minute, we will do all that can be done to save whoever can be saved. We will struggle for the lives of each of our sailors, and hope for the best."
Just hours before British and Norwegian teams arrived on Saturday to take part in the rescue effort, the Russian Navy said most of those aboard had likely perished in the Aug. 12 explosion that scuttled the Kursk. For any possible remaining crewmen, officials said, "We have crossed the critical survival threshold."
Slick as the presentation of Putin, a former KGB agent, has been to the Russian people during his meteoric rise to power in the past year, Russians have been awestruck by his lack of leadership during their national moment of need.
"Top Russian leaders still do not possess the skill of being public politicians," says Andranik Migranyan, of the independent Reforma Foundation think tank in Moscow. "Their behavior in bad situations is still not automatic. Instead, there are piles of lies, and attempts to hide bad news and block real information," Mr. Migranyan says. "Russian politicians still don't understand that they gain more from transparency in politics."
SOME analysts argue that the turnaround points to a deepening political maturity among Russians, relative to their young new leader.
Polls earlier this month - soon after Putin presented a series of sweeping tax reforms and took on the oligarchs, Russia's mighty media, banking, and oil tycoons, but before the crisis - put Putin's popularity rating at 73 percent. Some 46 percent of Russians polled said they personally trusted him.
Such numbers are rare in politics, and compare with former US President Ronald Reagan's highest ratings. Putin's performance scored 77 percent in mid-April, soon after his election in March.
But those numbers have taken a nosedive. In one phone-in opinion poll conducted by Ekho Moskvy radio on Aug. 16, 76 percent of respondents said the crisis was a blow to Putin's reputation. Constant scenes since then on Russian TV of sailors' tearful families blaming their leader and the Navy for inaction - as Putin continued to vacation at a Black Sea resort - have galvanized popular discontent in a way that seemed unimaginable just two weeks ago.
Norwegian divers confirmed yesterday that the rear escape hatch had been damaged, apparently in the blast that ripped through the Kursk, one of Russia's newest and most powerful submarines, during naval training exercises. The nuclear-powered vessel is constructed of sealable compartments like the Titanic, and similarly was meant to be unsinkable.
A large crack detected by a remote-controlled undersea camera cast doubt on whether the British Navy rescue submersible LR5 would be able to dock with the Kursk. Deputy Russian Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told Russian television "Our main hope is on the manual work, together with a [diving] bell of the Norwegian divers."
The barrage of scathing news reports (in outlets largely controlled by the oligarchs) have especially targeted the days of delay before reluctant Russian authorities accepted offers of outside help.
At the resort of Yalta for a meeting on Friday, Putin defended his absence. His first instinct had been to visit the scene, he said, though he was told by senior Navy commanders that there was no more than "an extremely small chance for rescue." He had done the "right thing" in staying away because his presence would "hamper work." Putin added: "Everyone should keep to his place."
But the public relations disaster was already complete for most Russians, who felt that the president's place was at his desk in the Kremlin, if not personally in charge of the rescue effort.
It wasn't until Friday that Russians were able to read the list of sailors trapped on board the Kursk. Instead of coming from official sources - another sore point for anxious Navy families - it was published in a regional edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda. The newspaper's editors bought the list, labeled "Top Secret," from a senior naval officer for the equivalent of about $645.
Despite the lack of leadership - attributed by many to Putin's relative political inexperience - some analysts defended Putin's hands-off approach. "Nothing depends on Putin's personal presence at the site of the tragedy, and it is best not to be guided by emotion, but by common sense," says Igor Sundiyev, director of the Institute of Research and Extreme Situations and Processes at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
"It would have been stupid for Putin to be running along the seashore, because it would have been only pretending the sorrow, and nothing more," he says.
Putin was no doubt fully aware that he was facing a political Catch-22, say analysts. "He's doing his best now to keep a distance," says Reforma's Migranyan. "He wants to create a barrier in people's minds between him and the 'rescue' of bodies from the submarine."
*Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society