- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

The crippled Russian submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea could cause major collateral damage to the reputation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin, vacationing at the Black Sea resort of Sochi throughout the six-day drama, has been an oddly passive player in the first big crisis of his administration, even as the Russian press has taken harsh swipes at the military command that has been one of his key power bases.

The failure so far to rescue the 118 trapped crewmen in the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine, the Russian military's tight-lipped and contradictory response to the crisis, and the Kremlin's own confused signals "may bring long-term damage to Putin's popularity," said Ariel Cohen, an expert on Russian politics at the Heritage Foundation.

"This was the man who was supposed to get things done, and he's been barely seen," said Mr. Cohen.

Richard Scott, naval editor of the London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, said: "In political terms, it's extremely embarrassing for [Mr. Putin] now. The submarine accident demonstrates a clear need for a sweeping reform to restructure the [military]."

Remaining in Sochi as the world watched the rescue drama unfold, Mr. Putin waited until yesterday to make his first public comments on the sub disaster.

The situation is "serious, I would say critical," said Mr. Putin, who was apparently not informed of the submarine's troubles until Monday two days after radio contact with the vessel was lost during a major Russian Northern Sea fleet exercise.

But Mr. Putin, echoing the official line of top Russian naval officers, also told reporters at first that Russia "had all the necessary equipment" to rescue the crew.

Only hours later, he approved an order to accept British and Norwegian help in trying to save the crew.

Mr. Putin and President Clinton discussed the submarine's plight during a 25-minute telephone call yesterday. White House National Security Council spokesman David Stockwell said Mr. Clinton offered U.S. military help, but Mr. Putin did not take him up on the offer.

The confusing and contradictory stories put out by Russian military officials since the sub went down have become a target of increasingly outspoken criticism in the Russian press and abroad, with some charging that the Russians had waited far too long before swallowing their pride and admitting defeat.

The New Izvestia newspaper said: "If it was a NATO sub, it would have been saved by now."

The time and the cause of the accident, the need for Western assistance, even the number of crewmen trapped at the bottom of the sea all have been revised as the Russian military has dribbled out information on the disaster.

Norway, off whose coast the crippled nuclear sub now rests, also expressed dismay that Moscow only officially informed the nation of the accident Tuesday, three days after it occurred.

The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Cohen said Mr. Putin bears some responsibility for the culture of fear that has gripped top Russian military officials in responding to the submarine crisis.

Line officers are demanding written orders before attempting new rescue efforts, he said, apparently afraid of a purge should the attempts fail.

Gleb Pavlovsky, Mr. Putin's top political adviser, said a dramatic intervention by the president to direct the rescue effort could do more harm than good.

In an extended political honeymoon since taking office in May, Mr. Putin impressively has consolidated his power, embarked on an aggressive round of foreign summits, and pushed much of his domestic-reform agenda through the legislature.

But the submarine crisis capped a week of embarrassing reverses.

A terrorist bombing rocked a busy square just blocks from Mr. Putin's Kremlin office last week, killing 12. The still-unsolved attack tarnished the president's reputation as the man who curbed terrorism with his aggressive prosecution of the war in Chechnya.

And North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shocked Moscow over the weekend by saying a proposal he made to Mr. Putin last month to junk Pyongyang's nuclear missile program was actually a joke.

Mr. Putin, hoping to use the "offer" to undercut U.S. plan for a national missile defense system, touted the idea as a major breakthrough at the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan, forcing U.S. and Western diplomats to scramble to figure out what Mr. Kim had proposed.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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