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Submarine drama: A no-win proposition for Putin?
LONDON (CNN) -- First came deafening silence. Then came international outcry. And finally, somewhat tardily for a nation in shock, the somber proclamation from the leader himself about the gravity of the crisis at hand: "For the first time ever, we have confronted in reality the sinister power of uncontrolled nuclear energy."
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev waited 18 days in 1986 to issue his ringing verdict about the lessons of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident and an event many experts, in hindsight, believe hastened the Communist collapse.
Similarly, President Vladimir Putin, the second freely elected president of an independent Russia, remained silent for five days this week before addressing the fate of the 118-man crew stranded in a crippled submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea.
"Everything that can possibly be done is being done for the rescue of the crew and the sub," Putin first told reporters during a break while holidaying on Russia's Black Sea coast.
'I did the right thing'
Faced with a barrage of press criticism, Putin again defended his conduct Friday. Speaking to Russian reporters during a break at a summit of ex-Soviet states in Ukraine, the Russian president said his first instinct had been to fly to the region of the stricken submarine -- but quickly reconsidered.
"I refrained, and I think I did the right thing because the arrival of non-specialists from any field at the disaster area would not help high-placed officials and more often would hamper work. Everyone should keep to his place."
Putin said his first question upon learning of the accident was whether the nuclear reactors posed a contamination threat and, secondly, whether the crew and vessel could be saved. He said the tragedy had a personal side for him, since he knows the submarine's commander.
Putin also defended the decision to delay informing the Russian public about the disaster for two days, until Monday.
"Immediately when on August 12 at 11 p.m. (1900 GDT) the submarine lost contact it became clear that the military had an extraordinary situation on their hands. It is another matter that the media received this information later.
"You can criticize, but you can understand that first of all, before giving out official information, the sailors had to sort out what happened."
Can ratings withstand rumblings?
Nonetheless, Putin's belated reaction to the Kursk disaster, analysts say, is at odds with the public's perception of their president as a man of action and purpose -- the man they elected by a landslide margin in March to restore law, order and dignity to their beleaguered nation.
Now that same electorate is showing signs of having second thoughts. Putin's approval ratings soared as high as 83 percent back in January, and have hovered above 70 percent in recent weeks.
It remains an open question, though, whether this popularity rating can withstand the rumblings of a press and public newly emboldened to speak their mind by the Kursk tragedy.
Relatives of sailors stranded on the Kursk were scathing in their indictment of the Kremlin this week as they gathered at a base in Russia's far north awaiting further information about the fates of their sons, brothers and fathers.
"Why on earth did he think it was possible to keep mum for five days while the entire nation has spent those days consumed by only one thought -- 'will they be saved or won't they?'" the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda daily asked on Thursday.
The newspaper depicted Russia's commander-in-chief as woefully detached in the heat of what may be the biggest crisis yet to face his presidency.
To underscore the point, it printed a list of Putin's activities over the past five days since the sinking -- including naming ambassadors to Chile and Jamaica and sending birthday wishes to an actress.
'Bad habits die hard'
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defence analyst based in Moscow, wrote in The Moscow Times that the Kremlin had "lied so much about the Kursk" -- on everything from the cause of the accident to the progress of the rescue efforts -- that information it provides in the future will not be taken at face value.
"In the past," Felgenhauer said, "Russian (and Soviet) officialdom traditionally suppressed facts about nuclear disasters, and bad habits die hard. But the total confusion in statements after the sinking of the Kursk may also be explained by a fit of panic that hit the military-industrial establishment."
Martin McCauley, a fellow at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London, said the Kursk episode would offer a ripe opening for Putin's enemies to take a dig at the president, already weakened in the wake of last week's bomb attack in central Moscow.
Until now, many experts say, Putin has moved so deftly on so many different fronts -- reining in the influence of the business elite, overhauling tax laws and whittling down the powers of provincial governors -- that he has at times seemed like a one-man juggernaut, and one who knows judo to boot.
Now that may change.
"The opposition that has been opposed to Putin's reforms will point to this and say he has failed," said McCauley.
"They must be pulling their hair out (in the Kremlin) because it's a lose-lose situation. You have the families who want to know why they were not informed and why Western help wasn't invited from day one and why didn't the British LR5 submersible fly to Murmansk."
An attempt 'to build consensus'
McCauley speculates that Putin might search for a scapegoat. "What he will do is to blame the Navy and say they botched it. And if he does that he drives a wedge between himself and the Navy. The average Russian citizen would expect him to do that. But if he doesn't blame the Navy, the average Russian will ask: 'Then who is to blame?'"
Others suggest, however, that Putin's response to the Kursk foundering is more nuanced than the type of Soviet-style stonewalling Russians grew accustomed to in the past.
"What has been astonishing about Putin's style so far is his remarkable attempt to build bridges, to build consensus," said Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, in Canterbury.
"He actually keeps channels of communication open. And then he hectors, he bullies and he even bores people into submission."
Sakwa believes that Putin is doing battle between internal demons. "He's got a very complicated two elements fighting within him: The neo-Soviet side, the one that clams up, that says: 'Let's get out of this caper, maybe things will turn out for the best,' and the post-Soviet side, with the responsibility to do the best by everyone.
"The neo-Soviet side was always full of a baseless optimism; his post-Soviet side is an acceptance of the reality that maybe things won't work out for the best."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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