It took divers 60 minutes to open up the 'Kursk'. Now Putin must account for his darkest hour

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Russian officials looked furtive and embarrassed yesterday at the speed - just more than 24 hours from start to finish - with which a dozen mostly British divers from a Norwegian firm proved all the sailors on the Kursk had died.

Russian officials looked furtive and embarrassed yesterday at the speed - just more than 24 hours from start to finish - with which a dozen mostly British divers from a Norwegian firm proved all the sailors on the Kursk had died.

The humiliating experience has fuelled the criticism of the Russian rescue effort, which has not stopped at the doors of their navy. It has also shaken the Kremlin.

Within a hour of the first divers descending to the wreck yesterday morning, they had ripped off the outer cover of the escape catch, something four Russian rescue submarines had tried and failed to do for almost a week.

There were almost farcical scenes in the rescue vessels above the Kursk as the Russians gloomily emphasised the difficulties facing the divers and the Norwegians briskly insisted they could be easily solved.

Ilya Klebanov, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, said late on Sunday that a crane might have to rip off the escape hatch because it was so badly buckled. Lt-Col John Espen Lien, the Norwegian military spokesman, immediately contradicted him, saying, truthfully, that the damage to the hatch was comparatively slight and it could be opened.

Mr Klebanov produced the dramatic news that there might be the corpse of a Russian sailor behind the hatch, drowned in an airlock while making a doomed attempt to swim to safety. Col Lien said testily that there was no evidence for this.

The Russian motive is clear enough. If the Norwegians made it all look too easy then this would fuel criticism of the Russian navy for not calling them in earlier. The navy had deep-sea diving units attached to each of its four fleets up to the mid-1990s but dissolved them for lack of funds. Former Russian divers who telephoned the navy offering their services were rebuffed.

President Vladimir Putin has been ferociously attacked by the Russian media for starting his holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on the day the Kursk sank on 12 August and staying there until the end of last week.

As Russian politicians called for a full inquiry into the disaster, the Communist Speaker of the Duma yesterday blamed the military for keeping the President in the dark. Gennady Seleznyov, said he had met the President shortly after the Kursk went down, and Mr Putin showed no sign of alarm. "He would have certainly shared the information if he knew what really happened there," Mr Seleznyov said. "Everything must be fully investigated."

Mr Putin's defence was that if he had flown to the Northern Fleet at Murmansk he might have hampered the rescue effort. He decided to leave it to the professionals. But this argument is now in trouble because the rapid Norwegian success since Sunday morning shows the professionals did not know what they were doing.

From the moment of the disaster the Russian navy produced a torrent of misinformation. They said the Kursk had sunk on Sunday, was not flooded and they were in radio communication with the crew.

None of this turned out to be true. The navy got the number of sailors on board wrong - they said it was 116 but later upped this to 118 - and refused to release their names. The first list of the men on board the Kursk was published by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda which bribed a naval officer with 18,000 roubles (£450) to give it to them.

Much of the Russian media interpreted this as systematic lying. But there was little systematic about the rescue effort from start to finish.

The divers and British LR5 rescue submarine were called in late, which meant they arrived after the time Russian admirals said any survivors would run out of air.

This is a double blow for Mr Putin. He was elected as the man who would restore strength to the Russian state. The Kursk sank when it was on manoeuvres preparatory to a Russian fleet sailing to the Mediterranean to show the flag. Instead, the whole operation has turned into a symbol of Russian military weakness and incompetence.

The danger for Mr Putin is not just that Russians are angry about his behaviour. They are, but ordinary Russians are cynical about their leaders. Many Russians are now concluding that there is less to Mr Putin than meets the eye. This includes financial oligarchs and powerful local governors who feel threatened by his campaign to reassert central authority. They may now believe he is not as smart or tough as they feared.

The mood of ordinary people is more difficult to judge. There is an understandable desire for a scapegoat. An opinion poll asked 500 people in Moscow over the weekend about the disaster.

Some 71 per cent said foreign assistance should have been accepted earlier, and only 17 per cent backed the decision to delay. But 60 per cent also said their opinion of Mr Putin had not changed. Among eight people interviewed by The Independent in central Moscow yesterday, the mood was sad rather than angry.

Most agreed foreign help should have been accepted more quickly. Irina, a 32-year- old estate agent, said: "When the Norwegians came, they did things very quickly, so it should have been done from the beginning like that."

Valery Oberchuk, an engineer from Rostov-on-Don, said: "If there had been a relative of an admiral on the Kursk, they would have been more efficient." Not all agreed. "I know submarines," said Sergei, a 53-year-old with a military background. "I cannot criticise the government. I did believe the navy did its best until everybody was totally exhausted. I can't make judgements about the President. One shouldn't panic because of a single accident."

But the change in political attitude is most evident in the media, including those not controlled by the opposition. The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday had a large headline above pictures of Mr Putin and two senior military commanders saying simply: "They did not drown."

On the same page, it asked where the President would have gone swimming if the Kursk had sunk in the Black Sea, implying that he would have rapidly removed himself from the scene of the tragedy.

In fact, Mr Putin and the Russian military have behaved in much the same way during last week's rescue efforts as they did during the war in Chechnya last year.

The difference then was that most Russians backed the war in Chechnya. Mr Putin could portray critics as unpatriotic. It is this which has come back to haunt him. Russians may not care much about dead Chechens but they do care about the fate of their young Russian sailors.

Over the last week Mr Putin has looked as if he did not.