Putin’s Salvage Operation

Objectively speaking, you wouldn’t think a small mishap like a sunken submarine could possibly hurt Vladimir Putin. After all, the man has greater problems: an unwinnable guerrilla war in Chechnya, bombs going off in central Moscow, a dysfunctional economy that is staying afloat only thanks to high oil prices, a recalcitrant bureaucracy, a declining population. By some reckonings, the Kursk tragedy isn’t even the most serious problem afflicting his navy: After all, it represents only one dysfunctional submarine, and some 180 others have been taken out of service in the past decade. Many of those remaining are virtually deserted, some reportedly without security, their nuclear reactors intact.  

Yet it almost seems as if the Kursk disaster was specifically designed to hit President Putin precisely where he is most vulnerable. This isn’t just a matter of timing—post-Moscow bomb, Putin on holiday, Chechen war faltering—or the Kremlin’s slow reaction to events, as many have stressed. The truth of the matter is that since Vladimir Putin was first named prime minister and heir apparent to President Boris Yeltsin a year ago, he has—while talking about economic reform and other sundry things of appeal to the West—won acclaim in Russia primarily thanks to his frequently stated desire to rebuild both Russia’s international military prestige and its imperial image.

Remember that Putin’s popularity began to rise last year with the re-invasion of Chechnya and continued, when he was still only acting president, with some loose talk about multiple nuclear warheads and an announcement that Russia would reverse its vow never to use nuclear weapons first. (See’s analysis from last January if you have forgotten all of this.) At about the same time, Boris Yeltsin, then still president, stomped out of an OSCE summit in Turkey, banging a figurative shoe on the table, refusing to listen to criticism of the Chechen war, showing the West—and the Russians—that he was no longer a capitalist lap dog.

Internally, both Yeltsin and Putin slowly stepped up pressure on people who made the military uncomfortable, and not just, as has been well documented, on journalists who reported unfavorably on the second Chechen war. Particularly notable, in the light of this week’s events, was the jailing and prosecution of the Russian journalist Aleksander Nikitin, who dared to publish, in cooperation with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, a report describing in great detail the polluting potential of Russia’s northern fleet, including its nuclear submarines. (Bellona has also had the best coverage of the sunken sub, click here to read it.) Although Nikitin was acquitted, new hearings are scheduled in the Russian Supreme Court in September.

Since being elected to office, Putin’s image hasn’t changed: On the contrary, he has had himself photographed flying military planes and inspecting military installations, all to the sound of public applause. Even as the Chechen war has faltered, he has relied heavily on the support of the “power ministries,” the military and the security services, to help him win bureaucratic and military battles in Moscow, so far with success.  Nor has Putin withdrawn from his promise to make Russia into a military power once again. While admitting that Russia has fallen behind the West in military capability, a group of Putin’s top advisers recently published a report—”A Strategy for Russia”—in which they argued, among other things, that Russia should remain a superpower, comparable if not equal to the United States, and thereby maintain its international political position and influence. Echoing their analysis, Putin has declared that his goal is for Russia to rebuild its conventional forces and to expand Russia’s reach: There has been talk, for example, of sending the Russian navy back to the Mediterranean, a part of the world it has not been seen in for some time.

Now, suddenly, in the light of the disaster of the sunken Kursk, all of that looks far more theoretical than it did even a week ago. As Norwegian and British ships raced to the rescue, the remilitarization strategy began to look not merely hollow, but ridiculous: “It’s a good example of problems sparked when you’re trying to pretend to be a great power,” Larry Korb, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary, told Reuters, somewhat condescendingly, this week. “If you send a new but poorly-maintained car on the road and you don’t teach your son or daughter to drive it, you’re going to have problems.” Russian newspapers wrote much the same: “The tragedy of the Kursk proved that it is not just evil but criminal to build up unfounded illusions about Russia’s defence ability,” editorialized Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Early on in this affair, it had occurred to me that the correct analogy for the Kursk accident might be the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle: a similar lesson in the dangers of hubris, a warning about the limits of technology, etc., etc. Watching the events unfold over the past week, however, I see that that analogy was wrong: No American politician ever staked his prestige on the success of space technology in the way that Putin has staked his claims to legitimacy and to popularity on the success of the Russian armed forces. The Kursk contains far more potential for destroying not only Putin but also the broader program of the military and the security services which he represents.

Russia, like Britain earlier this century, is in fact at a turning point in its post-imperial evolution. It can go on “pretending to be a great power,” competing with the United States in rhetoric and bombast with only a tiny percentage of the funding—$5 billion vs. $300 billion annually)—sending ships to the Mediterranean and conducting elaborate military exercises like the one the Kursk was engaged upon, or it can recognize that its imperial days are over. Putin can salvage something from this crisis, so to speak, only if he is intelligent enough to use it as an excuse to retrench, to focus on Russia’s ailing economy, to promote real reform rather than the ersatz capitalism of recent years, to start thinking about the plight of ordinary Russians rather than the fate of “Mother Russia.”

Above all, President Putin could cut Russia’s military expenditure and military ambitions. Russia’s annual budget expenditure, after all, is a quarter the size of Holland’s. Although it would take a brave leader to reduce Russia’s armed forces to Dutch levels, to do so may be Russia’s last chance at retaining Holland’s international influence. If he refuses—if Russia continues to aspire to a superpower status it cannot afford—expect more disasters, more silence and stonewalling, and more tragedies like that of the Kursk.

Next week: another subject besides Russia. Apologies for the narrow geographic focus of recent columns, but I can’t resist news events.