Failed Ambitions

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Every morning as he speeds to work with his escort of bodyguards and aides, Vladimir Putin passes a prominent billboard on the side of the road in central Moscow. Against a pale blue sky, a modern Russian cruiser sits gracefully in half-profile. "Sea Power, for the glory of Russia," the slogan reads. The poster is, of course, a nod to the President's own dream of restoring Russia as a great world power. This is a dream that he has emphasized as often as possible since he reached the top flying in a supersonic fighter to visit the troops in Chechnya, for example, or, more ironically, visiting the Northern Fleet a couple of months ago and going to sea on a nuclear submarine.

Putin was brought to power by image makers. The Kursk tragedy has focused a brutal light on the way the image falls short of the reality of Russian power incompetent, over-ambitious and under-trained. The immediate reaction of Russian defense specialists when the Kursk went down was not so much disbelief at the tragedy, but amazement that it had not occurred earlier. The Russian Armed Forces are a disaster waiting to happen.

Putin's silence for the first long days of the crisis indicates an initial confusion, perhaps disarray. His behavior later in the week, though, shows that his faith in the armed forces and their new mission is unshaken. This means no chance of any change, reassessment or soul-searching in the Russian military in the wake of the Kursk tragedy.

The late Soviet period, when Putin was an enthusiastic young kgb officer, were the glory days of the military machine. The leadership spared no expense in creating the most modern possible fighting machine its generosity in fact may have speeded up the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, funding dwindled to a trickle. Strategic bombers were grounded for lack of parts, ground troops ceased to take part in exercises, submarines did not go out to sea.

Little has changed since. But, while the hardware rusted and readiness declined, the Soviet-era ambitions remained. (So, the Kursk has shown, did Soviet-era secrecy and incompetence.) Putin, who often shows a nostalgia for the Soviet era, wants to rebuild the armed forces, and has promised more money. The current budget is around $4.5 billion, compared to $268 billion a year for the U.S.

The Navy's defense all week has been that the Kursk tragedy was a random accident terrible, unavoidable, but not a failure of equipment or training. Some have been pushing a grimmer theory, that it was the work of a still-menacing West, either in the form of the U.S. or a NATO ally. In fact, the Navy's behavior this week points up a deep and dangerous malaise top officers who opt for cover-up rather than a prompt rescue mission, whose public utterances border on panic, and who are desperately unwilling to take responsibility.

Some leaders might have been shaken by their commanders' incompetence. Not Putin. His response has been sympathy and a resolute display of confidence. Late last week, as hope was fading for the submarine's crew, he explained that he did not go to the scene of the disaster because he didn't want to "get in the way" of the Navy operation. He added, "I still trust the military." In other words, Putin is still clinging to his military dreams, no matter how unrealistic, or dangerous, they appear to be.