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The Week In Russia: Fire, Floods, Foul Language, And A Frightening Proposal

Russian Navy servicemen console each other ahead of a funeral service for 14 sailors who died in a submarine fire in the Barents Sea.
Russian Navy servicemen console each other ahead of a funeral service for 14 sailors who died in a submarine fire in the Barents Sea.

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Here's how the Kremlin handled devastating flooding, the second-deadliest submarine disaster since the Kursk, and an expletive-laden tirade targeting President Vladimir Putin. Also, does an over-the-top marriage-proposal video mirror Moscow's foreign policy tactics?

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Legacy Of The Kursk

Vladimir Putin is said to have learned lessons from the PR disaster that came hand-in-hand with the horrific human tragedy of the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk three months into his first presidential term in 2000.

When he made the trip north to the Arctic 10 days after the accident, having stayed in subtropical Sochi at first, Putin was berated or blasted by some of the relatives of the 118 crewmen who were killed -- with one widow saying that he was "not a president" but a "stooge."

So you might think one of the lessons learned would have been to go to the site or to the spots where relatives live: Go early and, if necessary, often. Another lesson, given the criticism of the Kremlin for the delayed announcement and the air of secrecy surrounding the demise of the Kursk and its crew, might be to loosen the lips and speak frankly and openly about an accident at sea.

But the conduct of Putin and other officials after the fire that Russian authorities say killed 14 sailors aboard a submersible on the Barents Sea floor on July 1 suggests that the lessons he learned were close to the opposite: Don't go north, don't meet the relatives -- at least publicly -- and keep Russians and the West guessing by managing the morsels of information you release.

The "very fact" of the fire, as Russians say, was not revealed until a day after it occurred, and while media outlets have identified the vessel that appears to have been involved, officially neither its make nor its mission has been confirmed.

While the sinking of the Kursk reverberated far beyond the Russian military, whose status and circumstances have in many ways mirrored those of the nation as a whole since the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin seems determined to make the submarine fire a purely military matter.

Conveniently, the classified nature of the vessel and its mission -- while allowing for speculation ranging from the most harmless of activities to some that might seem more likely, given the number of relatively senior officers killed -- has also enabled the officials to cite the need for secrecy when they refuse to disclose information.

Russia Mourns Sub Losses Amid Many Questions
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Putin's laconic spokesman did so in particularly laconic fashion on July 3, repeatedly making clear to reporters that, just because the Kremlin had a piece of information, that didn't mean they would get to hear it.

"The commander-in-chief has all the information at his disposal, but, naturally, that information cannot be released openly to the public," said the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, turning a daily talk with journalists into a trolling session. "We're talking about top-secret information, so in this case, it is entirely normal that it's not being released."

'Catastrophe On A Planetary Scale'

Asked whether there was a nuclear reactor aboard the vessel -- something Putin chose to confirm a day later, on national television, adding that it was not damaged -- Peskov said that was not a question for the Kremlin because "we don't build ships." He then referred a reporter to the Defense Ministry, one of five times he did so during the brief briefing.

Compared to the Kursk, the lower death toll in the submarine fire may have helped keep the issue from exploding in Putin's face. From the start he suggested it was perhaps the price to pay for security, stressing that sub was "not an ordinary vessel" and that the seamen on board were "highly qualified professionals."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

Amid the dearth of information about the incident, one assertion stood out: At a funeral service for victims, held in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg but not attended by the president, a high-ranking military officer reportedly said that the crew had "averted a planetary-scale catastrophe."

That was presumably a reference to the nuclear reactor, whose allegedly undamaged status was one of the few details doled out by Moscow. But Peskov professed ignorance of the remark and it was widely taken with a grain of salt rather than a dose of iodine. "You can't have it both ways: you can't insist on secrecy and then say you've saved the world," one journalist tweeted.

Devastating Floods

While the submarine fire took place out of sight, at sea and under sea, the effects of the floods that have hit Siberia -- killing at least 25 people and displacing many others by destroying more than 10,000 homes – have been on stark view above the drastically high water line.

Some officials have broadly blamed global warning for the disaster. But some victims say the authorities in the Irkutsk Oblast gave them no warning, leaving them helpless to prepare and aggravating the effects.

In a column in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, analyst Yulia Latynina wrote that blame should be laid less on nature than on three man-made factors: logging, for the purpose of "selling timber to China," a dam that was built in 2008 in the hard-hit city of Tulun, and the construction of fragile homes on a floodplain by people struggling to get by.

"Poverty is always the worst ecological catastrophe," Latynina wrote.

The floods in Siberia destroyed some 10,000 homes.
The floods in Siberia destroyed some 10,000 homes.

In other environment-related news, Putin raised eyebrows -- and seemed to lend support to the extraction of fossil fuels crucial to Russia's economy -- by wondering "how many birds are dying" as a result of wind turbines and voicing concern that "they shake, causing worms to come out of the soil."

Like a number of things that Putin has said before, though, he has said it -- in 2013, according to a journalist who checked the Kremlin website.

TV Tirade

Putin was on the receiving end of far more controversial remarks when a Georgian TV host unleashed an expletive-laden tirade in which he called the Russian president, among other things, a "stinking occupier" -- an apparent reference to the Russian forces that remain in two breakaway Georgian regions 11 years after a war in 2008, and a "walrus c***" -- an apparent reference to, um, not sure.

One effect the rant may have had was to underscore that much of the anger that has flared in Georgia since a Russian lawmaker sat in the Georgian parliament speaker's chair during a conference in Tbilisi on June 20 has been focused more on Putin and the Russian state than on the Russian people.

Georgian TV Broadcaster Drops F-Bomb On Vladimir Putin
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On the Russian side, the tirade enabled Putin to do one of the things he does sometimes: Use parliament, pro-Kremlin pundits, and state media to set things up for a tough move -- and then take a softer tack, in what appears to be an effort to come across as a wise, restrained leader who is too responsible and reasonable to give in to emotions, as understandable as they may be.

In this case, the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, unanimously backed a resolution urging the government to draft sanctions against Georgia, potentially including a ban on Georgian wine imports.

But Putin, whose decree banning direct passenger flights between Russia and Georgia had taken effect a day earlier, said he would stay away from sanctions "out of respect for the Georgian people."

Of course, it makes sense that Putin silenced the call for sanctions at this stage, because their imposition in response to the ad hominem insults might have looked pretty petty and thin-skinned. Instead, he dismissed his critic as a "scumbag" and pointedly took the high road, at least for now.

'Creepy, Controlling'

Another approach Putin sometimes takes in diplomatic signaling is to mix warnings or threats, direct or insinuated, with assertions that he wants warmer ties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

In his annual state-of-the-nation speech in February, for example, Putin rattled off the names of several missiles, urging U.S. policymakers to calculate "the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing" -- and then stating that "Russia wants to have sound, equal, and friendly relations with the United States."

This combination of scare tactics and calls for closer ties seemed strangely mirrored, in a way, in a startling video of a marriage proposal that one Twitter user who posted it described as "just [expletive deleted] nuts."

In it, a couple is pulled over on a roadside and forced at gunpoint to sprawl on the hood of their car by camouflage-clad men in black balaclavas. After a harrowing minute of what would presumably be abject fear on the part of the woman if she was not in on the performance, the man gets on one knee, proffers a ring, and proposes. A gunman produces a bouquet and the couple embraces, so the answer was clearly 'yes.'

Tweets and retweets of the video elicited numerous comments, of course. Among them was a tweet that read, in part: "Creepy, controlling, using threats of violence under the guise of 'romance.'"

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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