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Submarine disaster deals setback to Putin

LONDON (CNN) -- As rescue teams race to reach sailors stranded on the Barents seabed in the crippled Kursk submarine, they are also scrambling to salvage the image of Russia's once-mighty naval fleet.

Beyond its potential human tragedy, the Kursk sinking marks a setback to President Vladimir Putin's campaign to show the world a newly reinvigorated Russian Navy.

That campaign seemed to get off to a promising start in late July, when Putin paid a triumphant Navy Day visit to sailors at the Baltic Sea port of Baltiysk. During the stopover, Putin spoke of the need to beef up the country's military fleet if it hoped to punch its weight in a new World order.

The military fleet has shrunk dramatically over the past decade. Meanwhile, sailors have had to endure a slew of indignities unknown to their western counterparts -- including a wage arrears crisis, recently resolved, that meant many of them went unpaid for up to six months.

The 14,000-ton Kursk, built in 1994 and commissioned in 1995, is the newest Russian submarine and a source of national pride to the 118 sailors chosen to man its decks as part of a series of ill-fated naval exercises begun over the weekend.

Just being on a sleek operational submarine, plying the icy depths of the Arctic, was probably a welcome change for many of the crew, more accustomed to long interludes on land in the cash-strapped post-Soviet era.

Compounding the sense of embarrassment for many Russians, the foundering of the Kursk followed the adoption earlier this earlier of a new military doctrine that outlines a prominent role for the Russian Navy. The fact that the Kursk was the flagship of the Northern Fleet -- Russia's largest and most important fleet -- adds salt to the wound, experts say.

Technical capability for rescue

Russia's government has so far ruled out accepting Western offers of help in the rescue efforts. That refusal, analysts say, illustrates that the country still remains torn between its Soviet-era secretiveness and its aspirations to step out of the old mould.

Andrei Solotkov, a monitor for the environmental watchdog Bellona Foundation, based in Murmansk, in northern Russia, acknowledged that the Russians had the technical capability to handle the rescue alone. But he said a mixture of pride and a deeply embedded suspicion of outsiders prevented the Russian Navy from turning to the West for help.

He said there may have been pragmatic considerations behind Russia's refusal for outside aid as well.

"The appearance of foreign ships in the area (with incompatible technology and crews speaking different languages) would be a big nuisance for the Russians," he said. "They would only complicate the rescue efforts."

Military given benefit of the doubt

Oksana Antonenko, a research fellow for Russia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said she believed Putin himself was probably not opposed to having outsiders participate in rescue efforts.

But she believes Putin wants to give the military -- one of Russia's most historically hidebound institutions -- the benefit of the doubt as it handles the aftermath of the sinking.

"Putin has been quite energetically engaged in reinstating military cooperation with the West overall," Antonenko said. "With NATO and the U.K., he was supporting Russian participation.

"In a way, for him, it wouldn't be unusual to ask for assistance (with the Kursk). At the same time, it's kind of a peculiar time at the moment...He's giving the military, in a sense, the lead. He sees this as a military issue rather than a political issue."

Noting that the Kursk disaster came less than a week after Putin held an important meeting with his security council, Antonenko added: "In this particular instance, Putin has given more responsibility to the military, even as he is leaning towards much more political control of the military."

Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., said Putin had already shown forbearance in his dealings with the military -- especially in the way he has waged the war in Chechnya.

"I think Putin has given the Russian military a remarkably free and open hand in Chechnya, and trust works two ways. He not only needs to earn the military's trust, but they need to earn his trust as well."

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Russian submarine rescue attempt under way in Arctic waters
August 15, 2000
Sinking a symptom of Russia's military malaise
August 15, 2000

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