Undiplomatic Dispatch: Why Has Russia Waited So Long to Ask for Submarine Help?

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Democracy doesn't make warfare very easy, and that's probably a good thing for those concerned with avoiding sacrificing their sons to some dubious "national interest." Any American general faced with solving a battlefield problem in the past three decades will confirm that his tactical options are considerably more limited than those of more authoritarian foes — indeed, last year's Kosovo conflict suggested that the political constraints governing the deployment of the U.S. military in the Clinton era treated any casualties as an unacceptably high price.

Luckily for President Vladimir Putin, then, Russia hasn't embraced democracy to the point of making its leaders immediately accountable for military losses. That much was clear Wednesday, when Moscow suddenly reneged on its refusal to accept Western help in rescuing the 116 men trapped aboard the stricken submarine Kursk. Suddenly, four days into the crisis, Russia had accepted Britain's offer to send experts and equipment for a rescue mission. But Western aid was offered immediately after the crisis was first reported on Sunday, and it appears to have been a matter of pride that prompted Moscow to politely decline. After all, if the concern had been based on security grounds, it'd make no sense to accept assistance now that was declined three days ago.

Not that the sudden turnaround in Moscow is likely to be much help now to the 116 souls trapped in a broken vessel some 350 feet down on the floor of the Barents Sea. Moscow also reported Wednesday, the same day it accepted the British offer, that there were no more signs of life emanating from the stricken craft. After all, the Kursk went down on Saturday, with its crew estimated to have, at best, a five-day oxygen supply once its nuclear reactors were turned off. Moscow swallowed its pride only after four days.

Of course there are security concerns with allowing NATO personnel to get too close to one of Russia's primary nuclear warfare platforms, but Western help also irks Moscow because it undermines the image President Putin is trying to project to the Russian citizenry of a strongman leader who is restoring the superpower glory sold at a garage sale by Boris Yeltsin. Putin wants to rebuild his military and his citizens' faith in a strong state, and turning to NATO countries for help in rescuing the crew of the Kursk sends a message of Western superiority in technology and competence. And symbolism has been all-important in elevating Putin, over five short months, from an anonymous securocrat into a landslide presidential election victor.

Putin established his presidential credentials during his Chechnya campaign, in which he responded to a series of still unsolved bomb attacks on apartment complexes in Moscow and other cities by launching a full-blown invasion of the rebel province. That military operation was carefully managed to avoid the sort of infantry confrontations that had demoralized and defeated Russia in its 1994-95 Chechnya war by simply bombing and shelling every Chechen population center in the Russians' path to the capital. Putin's illusion of a "clean war" against people who'd blow up every apartment building in Moscow given half a chance made him the wildly popular choice of a battered and demoralized nation, and that momentum carried him to the presidency even after the battle of Grozny had made clear that the war was anything but clean or casualty-free on the Russian side. In the end, Russian forces killed as many as 20,000 Chechen civilians and turned some 200,000 into refugees (in order to prove to them Putin's point that they remain Russian citizens), and saw some 2,000 of their own troops killed and 8,000 wounded — according to official estimates, which are widely assumed to be understated.

But last week's bomb blast that killed 12 people in a busy Moscow thoroughfare, coming on the heels of five truck bomb attacks that killed dozens of Russian soldiers inside Chechnya this year, suggests that despite the toll in human life on all sides, Putin's mission has failed. After all, he said he was pulverizing Chechnya precisely to stop terrorism. Any student of counterinsurgency (or veteran of the Afghanistan war, for that matter) could tell the Russian president that air strikes and artillery attacks against civilian population centers are more likely to breed terrorism than to stop it, but Putin had an election to win. So while he got a political bounce, the basic problem is left unsolved.

Now Russians are again being treated to the spectacle of their leaders handling a crisis in which lives are at stake in a way that falls far short of democratic accountability. Their statements have been vague and contradictory. One day they're telling their people that cables pumping oxygen and fuel into the sub have been attached; two days later they're acknowledging that such attempts failed. Only three days into the crisis did it emerge that the original accident happened on Saturday rather than Sunday. And after telling Russians there was no need for foreign aid because "our equipment is more powerful," they're suddenly scrambling for Western help.

Recriminations for the submarine crisis won't begin until the human drama is resolved. And heads will certainly roll to reassure a public whose disquiet may be growing at the sign that even the pride of its naval forces is this vulnerable. But the authorities' handling of the crisis may prompt some of its citizens to begin asking whether Moscow isn't too willing to sacrifice their sons on an altar of illusions.