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Western Press Review: Commentary On Kursk Continues

Prague, 25 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today continues to focus strongly on the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which now rests on the bottom of the Barents Sea with 118 dead seaman after suddenly sinking two weeks ago. Analysts discuss the naval disaster's effects on Russia's people, its President Vladimir Putin and its future military policies.


In the United States, the daily Chicago Tribune says in an editorial that the loss of the Kursk was an "immense national tragedy [that] already has revealed much about the new Russia. It has revealed," the paper writes, "that Vladimir Putin may be president of Russia but he has a lot to learn about being a leader in a democracy. Gestures matter, and a leader who must answer to the people instinctively knows that. Had he rushed to Murmansk, it would not have made any difference in saving lives, but it would have communicated a sense of urgency that was woefully missing. So, too, would his immediate acceptance of any and all offers of help and insisting his military tell the truth."

The editorial goes on: "[The Kursk disaster has also] revealed that Russia's navy, particularly its submarine fleet, is in crisis. Russia's sub fleet has shrunk to about 20 from 200. Those decommissioned ships lie rusting and rotting along the northern coast, posing a ticking environmental time bomb." It has revealed as well, the paper says, that "the citizens and the press of this new Russia will not tolerate Soviet-style secrecy, lying and obfuscation. Russia's media were relentless in pointing out the lies and inconsistencies in their officials' statements -- at one point, resorting to bribery to obtain and publish a list of the dead."

The editorial sums up: "If Russia is ever to develop an open, democratic society, the people will need to know they can trust their leaders. [This] tragedy has shown that Russians are right to be cynical, suspicious and angry. [The] choices Putin and his government make, politically and militarily, in [its] wake will speak volumes about the nation's future course. That will be the real truth of the Kursk."


The Boston Globe writes of "Russia's Anguish" in its editorial, which is far less critical of Moscow's leadership: "Beyond the human loss Russia has suffered with the sinking of its nuclear submarine stands the injury to national pride. Russia's submarine fleet [is] a shadow of its former self in the wake of the fiscal shambles that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union."

The paper continues: "Russian military leaders and President Vladimir Putin have been blamed both at home and abroad for failing to ask quickly for assistance from other countries in attempting to rescue the crewmen trapped on the submarine Kursk [100 meters] deep in the Barents Sea. [They] may have genuinely believed that they would be able to reach the submarine with their own equipment in time to save some lives," the editorial argues, "although the subsequent discovery of the damage from an apparent explosion suggests that any crew members who survived the initial catastrophe died before British or Norwegian rescue teams could have arrived under the best of circumstances."

The paper says further: "That the Russians did ultimately accept British and Norwegian assistance stands to their credit. Their hope to recover bodies from the submarine, and perhaps the submarine itself, evidently depends on additional foreign assistance. This [increases] the likelihood that there will be [further foreign assistance in] efforts to recover the Kursk by raising it from the ocean bottom and moving it either to a Russian port or to shallower waters, where it might be easier for divers to work."

"Russia's difficulties are serious," the editorial concludes, "but the loyalty and persistence of so many individuals in the face of those difficulties have to be admired. In the long run," it says, "the interests of Russians, Americans, and many others will be served best by increased cooperation rather than intense competition, and cooperation can be based only on a willing spirit among all parties."


In contrast, the Washington Times lambastes President Putin for what it call his "paranoid, prideful and callous bungling of the Kursk rescue. [This, the paper adds,] has angered the Russians. Suddenly, the popular Russian president has fallen out of favor, but," it says, "in many respects he wasn't deserving of it in the first place."

The editorial continues: "The Russians appear to have gotten exactly what they voted for. In the ongoing war with Chechnya, Mr. Putin has demonstrated a chilling disregard for human suffering and loss of life. Russians were outraged when this insensitivity was directed at their brethren at the bottom of the sea, but they shouldn't be overly surprised. This lack of humanitarian feeling is easily transferable."

The paper also says that "Russians also knew that Mr. Putin was rather partial to cracking down on the media's freedoms before he was voted president. Mr. Putin had ordered the capture of Radio [Liberty] reporter Andrei Babitsky before the March presidential election, in a transparent attempt to silence the only Russian reporter critical of the onslaught on the Chechens. So the Kremlin's lies concerning what caused the [Kursk] accident, when it occurred, how many people were onboard and whether there was radio communication with Moscow shouldn't shock the Russians or the rest of the world.

"This tendency to manipulate the truth," it adds, "in combination with Mr. Putin's often stated distrust of the outside world and zeal to recapture Russian glory, all conspired to add to the disaster. Mr. Putin clearly felt it was preferable to sacrifice those lives than to acknowledge his country's inability to launch a serious rescue attempt. It now appears Mr. Putin badly miscalculated."


The Wall Street Journal Europe says in its editorial that "Russia has come a long way since the days when the Kremlin relied on purges and liquidations to pacify a restive nation. But," it also says, "events surrounding the sinking of the Kursk continue to send a chilling reminder that there is still very far to go. Recent TV footage," it notes, "brings us the scene in which the mother of one of the submarine's drowned seamen was forcibly sedated as she tried to approach Ilya Klebanov, President Putin's Deputy Prime Minister and man on the scene. As captured by a Russian film crew, the woman collapsed moments after a needle was brandished."

The paper then says: "So it goes in the land of Mr. Putin, the ex-KGB man whose otherwise fluent German seems not to include the word 'Weltschmerz' -- a feeling for the world's pain. In the style of the Soviet leaders who preceded him, Mr. Putin would not tell the public the truth about what had transpired [a la Yuri Andropov], or accept Western aid when such aid might have made the difference [a la Mikhail Gorbachev]. Nor," the editorial goes on, "would he emerge from his vacation resort to take charge of the rescue operation or comfort anxious relatives of the crew."

The paper sees mostly lies in the Kremlin's handling of the crisis, writing: "[Putin's] government lied about when the sub went down. [It] lied about having made contact with it. [It] lied about the probable cause of the disaster, lied about the feasibility of opening the ship's hatch. [And] Mr. Putin has publicly recanted none of this. What will it take," the editorial asks in conclusion, "for Mr. Putin to realize that in moments of grief the human touch is infinitely preferable to the needle's prick?"


Britain's Economist weekly says that "the 118 sailors who perished on the Kursk submarine will not be the only Russian servicemen to forfeit their lives in ugly, violent circumstances this year. Indeed," its editorial goes on, "the toll in this incident is tiny compared with the sickening casualties which Russian forces continue to suffer, and inflict, in the Caucasus. Yet," the magazine says, "the loss of the Kursk, and the bungling that followed, have dented President Putin's reputation for controlled efficiency and may yet make Russians think again about the sort of government they deserve."

The editorial continues: "The loss of the Kursk has already boosted Russia's opposition, both in the political arena and in the media. [The] families in mourning in the Russian Arctic may not yet see it, but there is a connection between their plight and the need for some counterweight to central authority -- including robust media -- in a country where absolute power has so often corrupted its holders absolutely." It adds: "If the rage of the garrison community in Murmansk has been transmitted to the nation and the world, it is only because Russia's journalists -- under renewed pressure from the Kremlin in recent months -- are still able to denounce error and dishonesty in high places."

"It is encouraging," the magazine says further, "to see how many Russians -- and not only the bereaved families of the Kursk crew -- feel the government was too slow to accept assistance offered by Britain and Norway. The message to Russia's ruling class is that xenophobia as a political tactic -- one much favored in recent years -- does not always pay."


In the International Herald Tribune, columnist Flora Lewis writes: "[The Russian] government has lost a great deal more by delayed reaction and awkward cover-up than by the accident itself, still unexplained. [We] will probably never find out for sure whether a quicker response, a willingness to accept foreign help from the start instead of a proud rejection, would have saved some lives." she adds. "Neither fear of loss of face nor fear of loss of some kind of military secret could have justified the refusal to rush in all the useful expertise available so long as there was any chance of finding survivors.

Lewis goes on to discuss the possible ecological damage the Kursk will inflict: "At [the submarine wreckage's] relatively shallow depth, there is a risk of rusting containers releasing radioactivity. That is already a serious danger in the area of the Kola Peninsula, which the Russians have long been using as a dumping ground for old nuclear engines, to the grave distress of their Norwegian neighbors."

"It is time," she concludes, "that more serious attention be paid to warnings. The Norwegians know what they are talking about because they have been watching this as closely as still intense Russian secrecy makes possible, and they have a great deal of underwater expertise, as their divers demonstrated in opening the Kursk hatch."