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Letter From Moscow: The Needs of the Many

4 minute read
Paul Quinn-Judge

Even after he was elected Russia’s President last March, Vladimir Putin remained a riddle. Was he really, as his own staff members whispered, a cautious reformer who had learned his stuff in St. Petersburg during the early years of perestroika? Or was he the product of his training and times–a middle-level KGB officer whose views had been formed during a period when the Soviet Union seemed, on the surface at least, a mighty power? Thanks to the Kursk submarine debacle, which cost 118 lives, the guessing game is over. Putin is a gosudarstvennik–a believer in a strong state.

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 disapproval will probably subside as fast as it blew up. What the Kursk has done, however, is confirm what makes Putin tick.

The President 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 those who had criticized the operation. In the forefront of the “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 in which he listed his priorities 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 a 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 member of the Yeltsin staff or a family member and warn them when a policy was going badly wrong. Putin, who seems to trust only a tiny group of intimates, clearly does not have such a back channel.

But it is not surprising that Putin does not think 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 Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky was handed over by security services to spurious Chechen guerrillas. In June, when Gusinsky was arrested, Putin 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 rarely mentioned now that the military effort there is firmly bogged down.

The picture that has emerged of 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.

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