The answer to these questions has puzzled both Russians and Western observers ever since President Putin began his four-year term in May. They became clearer last week in the grief and handwringing following the Kursk submarine disaster, which cost 118 lives. The tragedy has confirmed that the second assessment of Putin is closer to the truth.
The claims of some Western analysts that the disaster has changed Russia in general and Putin in particular are wrong. Opinion polls indicate that he has suffered little damage from the botched rescue operation, and public opinion here will probably subside as fast as it blew up. What the Kursk has done, however, is confirm what makes Vladimir Putin tick.
Putin believes above all in the State and the need to protect its prestige. He trusts and supports the men — especially in uniform — who serve it. He accepts that they have a right to juggle with the truth if necessary — and is willing to do it himself if the need arises. He also believes, as do many kgb men of his generation, that any criticism of the state is by definition the product of base, perhaps even sinister motives.
The interview Putin gave to state-controlled TV last week provided an eloquent illustration of his world-view. After expressing a sense of responsibility and guilt for the loss of the Kursk, he quickly shifted to an attack on critics of the operation. The main "defenders of the sailors," Putin noted with irony, were those "who had assisted in the destruction of the Army, the Fleet and the State," people with villas in Spain and the south of France. This was an unsubtle jab at two tycoons, political wheeler-dealer Boris Berezovsky and media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky.
Instead of taking the "easy way out" and immediately firing commanders, Putin told viewers, he would work to restore "the Army, the Fleet and the Country." He then laid out his own credo: "I will be with the Army, I will be with the Fleet. I will be with the people." The order was probably not coincidental.
Putin's missteps during the Kursk affair — his silence, and the fact that he stayed on vacation throughout the first week of the crisis — point to a disastrously weak staff and total absence of feedback. Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin was usually surrounded by a network of former advisers or ministers who could always phone a key figure on the Yeltsin staff or a family member and warn them when a policy was going badly wrong. Putin, who seems only to trust a tiny group of intimates, clearly does not have such back-channels.
But it is unsurprising that Putin does not think that he mishandled the Kursk sinking. He has behaved in much the same way several times in the past six months, without anything like the repercussions he faced last week. The submarine casualty figure is roughly the number of soldiers who die every month in Chechnya, often under horrific circumstances. The Russian defense establishment follows the same information policy in that war — postpone the news as long as possible, then admit the details as gradually as the situation allows.
This approach has usually worked. Putin has also quite often denied knowledge of an embarrassing event, or subtly hinted that it was the responsibility of subordinates. He did this in February, when the Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky was handed over by the security services to spurious Chechen guerrillas. In June, when media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested, he told a press conference in Germany that he had been unable to find out why Gusinsky was in prison: he had not been able to phone the Prosecutor General. Today, Chechnya, once Putin's abiding policy passion, is mentioned rarely now that the military effort there is firmly bogged down.
The picture that has emerged of Vladimir Putin during the Kursk crisis is of a leader profoundly imbued with the political culture that has marked centuries of Russian history: the needs of the state always come first, individual concerns come a distant second. When forced by events — an election campaign or a televised tragedy — Putin will don a human face and show concern for the ordinary people. But left to himself, he is far happier in the embrace of his great love. The Russian State.
After their navy failed in the struggle to save the lives of 118 sailors aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk, the Russians must now start a new struggle — to save the sea from contamination by the highly radioactive contents of the Kursk's two reactors. The task is daunting, and there is little certainty that they will succeed any better than they did in their bungled efforts to save the submarine's crew.
It is possible, in fact, that the Kursk may be unsalvageable — so badly damaged that any attempt to move it or remove the reactors could be more dangerous than leaving it where it lies 108 m beneath the surface of the Barents Sea and 150 km northeast of Murmansk. "There should be a sign over it: 'Don't disturb this sub for hundreds of years,'" says Josh Handler, a former Greenpeace activist and a specialist in Russian nuclear accidents. Handler believes that a slow leakage of radioactive materials over many years will seep into the seabed and gradually dissipate, whereas a salvage operation could result in a more catastrophic release of radioactivity. The Russians might be able to encase the hulk in a glue-like gel that would limit radiation leakage — as was done with the submarine Komsomolets after it sank in the Norwegian Sea in 1989.
But other experts believe the Kursk, or at least its two 190-megawatt reactors, can be raised and rendered safe. They have advanced two methods: cut out the reactor compartment and lift it to the surface, or raise the entire boat using inflatable pontoons.
But separating the reactor compartments from the rest of the Kursk would lead to large-scale contamination even if the operation worked. "The sub is built around the reactors," says retired Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll of the Center for Defense Information, a non-governmental military think tank in Washington, D.C. "They would have to disconnect the reactors from all the pumps, releasing radioactive contaminated material." Contamination could be even worse if the reactors were not shut down properly during the accident that doomed the Kursk. "They're claiming that they have been shut down," says Handler. "But with all the confusion surrounding this, I think they are simply deducing that."
Raising the entire boat presents a similar set of dangers. The Kursk may have been so badly damaged that it will break apart while being raised, releasing radioactive materials. It is critical that the vessel be kept upright during the operation. "Should the boat turn upside down with its keel upward while it is being raised, the control rods could come out [of the reactor core]," says Dmitri Romanov, an official at the Rubin Central Design Bureau in St. Petersburg, which designed the Kursk. "Then a nuclear reaction can restart, and nobody can predict what will happen."
Nevertheless, the Russian navy and engineers from the Rubin bureau are already working on plans to raise the sub. Furthest along is a proposal by British-based balloonmaker Per Lindstrand, who says the boat could be brought up within a few months using inflatable pontoons. Lindstrand says divers could run cables beneath the hull using high-pressure hoses to drill small channels, then attach 20 uninflated balloons to the cables. The balloons would be inflated with nitrogen and the whole structure would float to the surface to be towed to a drydock. After pumping out the drydock, workers could recover bodies of crewmen and remove the 1.5-ton fuel assemblies in the reactor cores before removing the reactors themselves.
Even if salvagers were willing to risk the dangers of moving the Kursk, it will be many months before circumstances and weather permit it. Nuclear power experts say it takes three months for the reactors to cool completely, even assuming they were shut down properly. "It can't be done earlier than in 2001," says Admiral Eduard Baltin, former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet and himself a submariner. The region is 500 km above the Arctic Circle, where there is no sun in midwinter and where temperatures can fall to -35°C.
Political conditions, too, may be adverse. British and Norwegian rescuers who rushed to the aid of the Kursk sailors after the sinking complained of Russian confusion, secretiveness and suspicion. Norwegian officers at one point threatened to withdraw their rescue team because of inadequate information. Any attempt to raise the Kursk would need outside expertise, and the Russians could prove unwilling to change their habits to accommodate foreigners.
That might be a good thing. With the risks involved in a salvage operation so high, it is perhaps best to leave the Kursk where it is, quietly rusting — and quietly leaking radiation into the ocean — for hundreds of years to come.
With reporting by Polly Forster/Washington, Ulla Plon/Copenhagen and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow