Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Visitor Lukery Land, whose blog Wot Is It Good 4 is new to us, had the splendid inspiration to revisit press coverage of Vladimir Putin's performance during the Kursk submarine crisis of 2000, in which 118 Russian seamen died. Any parallels to the current debacle? Just try reading a few brief excerpts from the FAS recap below, substituting "Bush" for "Putin," "NOLA" for "Kursk," and "Iraq" for "Chechnya":

How good are our armed forces? We've been told that they are combat ready. I wouldn't be so sure after what happened in the Barents Sea. Why keep an enormous and costly fleet of nuclear submarines if we can't support them on combat missions as short as three days? Do we need them to feel like a great power?... We should live within our means. And that goes for the army, too. It's wrong to have illusions about defense. It is as bad as a crime. The crisis in our North Fleet in a small way reflects a crisis in our army reform.... Our president, the supreme commander, has not been at his best either. Three weeks ago he stopped his important work in Moscow to spend a day in Baltiisk, celebrating Navy Day. But he has not interrupted his vacation to visit Severomorsk, if only for an hour, and support the seamen in distress . . . .

Healthy democracies, unlike dictatorships, learn from their mistakes and are strengthened by them. That is the test for Russia today, as the submarine disaster in the Barents Sea approaches what seems increasingly likely to be a tragic ending.... At first, there was little reaction from the Russian public: Russian pride demanded solidarity, the tradition of totalitarianism stifled doubt. But then the gates of democracy opened, and the whirlwind of accountability swept into President Putin's holiday dacha. Yesterday's Russian press was virulent in its criticism of his silence and inaction. This is a form of politics that is familiar to us. Not only has Mr. Putin made a serious error of judgment in failing to ask for help immediately, but he has compounded it by appearing insouciant. No democratic politician can afford to remain on holiday in a crisis. Mr. Putin seemed to understand the demands of modern media presentation when he was elected. To be sure, his image-management was a little crude, winning a khaki election on the back of the second Chechen war, but he was recognizably a democratic politician cut from the same sort of material as Blair, Bush and Gore .... Putin will pay a heavy price for his sins of omission in failing to respond quickly to this accident . . . .

Every other democratically elected head of state would have gotten as near the site as humanly possible, because he or she would have known that a democracy demands such of its leader. The former KGB man doesn't know this yet.... And all reports tell of a population that has also become more modern than what the Russian government had thought and perhaps hoped. Therefore, the submarine wreck will not only leave behind dead, despair and perhaps nuclear contamination, it will also mark that the Russian society has grown beyond its leaders.

There is, of course, one major difference, and to find out what it is you will definitely want to stick around for the punchline.

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