- The Washington Times - Friday, August 25, 2000

While Russian President Vladimir Putin vacationed in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, sailors trapped in a 14,000 ton sea tomb tried desperately to force open an escape hatch. As the Kremlin continued spinning lies about the accident, these sailors watched their comrades struggle for breath in the oxygen depleted submarine and steadily pass away. The SOS signals detected by sonar grew increasingly faint, but Russian bureaucrats continued refusing outside help for the rescue effort. Finally there was no sound at all in the depths of the Barents Sea.

It is no wonder that Mr. Putin's paranoid, prideful and callous bungling of the Kursk rescue has angered the Russians. Suddenly, the popular Russian president has fallen out of favor, but in many respects he wasn't deserving of it in the first place.

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.

And the 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 Free Europe 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 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, 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 Kursk incident has glaringly highlighted Russia's technological and military inadequacies. A Norwegian team successfully opened the sub's escape hatch in just 36 hours, a feat the Russians were unable to complete in more than a week.

The Norwegians' quick work has surely fanned the grief of the victim's relatives: If only the team had been brought in sooner. Those relatives are questioning why the Kremlin allowed their loved ones to die one of the grimmest deaths imaginable and all at a time of peace. Bleak as it may seem, the Kursk disaster came to its logical conclusion, given Mr. Putin's shortcomings. Alas, the Russians have hardly seen the last of them.

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