Putin haunted by his love of military posturing

Russian President comes under fire as the Royal Navy heads to the rescue and grieving relatives protest at 'Kursk's' Arctic port
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'Why has the president been silent?' asked the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in two-inch high red letters on its front page yesterday, as the Russian media turned on Vladimir Putin for his handling of the submarine crisis.

'Why has the president been silent?' asked the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in two-inch high red letters on its front page yesterday, as the Russian media turned on Vladimir Putin for his handling of the submarine crisis.

Below the headline, a photograph shows Mr Putin in a peaked naval cap taking the salute on the bridge of a Russian naval vessel earlier in the year. The newspaper asks why Mr Putin took five days to make his first brief comment on the sinking of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea: "There was only one man who kept silent. The Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Russia. The honorary sailor."

It notes, acidly, that during this period he has found time to appoint new ambassadors to Jamaica and Chile and reverse a decision by the city of Tula on the disposal of scrap metal, but he has not talked to the distraught relatives of the 118 sailors entombed aboard the Kursk. He was reported yesterday to have discussed forthcoming Chechnya elections at his Black Sea resort.

Over the past year, Mr Putin has projected the image of a strong-willed Russian leader who would seek to restore his country's military strength. He owed his initial popularity to his decision to to send the Russian army into Chechnya. Just before the presidential election in March, he dressed in a pilot's uniform to fly in a fighter-bomber. He even spent a night under water in a nuclear submarine.

It is these images which are now coming back to haunt Mr Putin. Callers to Russian radio programmes ask why, given his liking for military uniform during the election campaign, did he appear in a beige T-shirt at the Black Sea holiday resort of Sochi to make his first remarks about the Kursk.

The reason for Mr Putin's low profile is obvious. From the moment the Kursk sank last Saturday - the day the president went on holiday - Kremlin officials probably thought things would end badly. The daily Kommersant says bluntly that they did not want to take responsibility. They preferred that those carrying out the rescue should be seen as "ultimately responsible for the peoples' deaths".

The Kremlin may have under-estimated the impact that the long-drawn out drama of the Kursk is having on Russians. "The fate of the 118 sailors, already dead or slowly suffocating in their submarine, is having a bigger popular impact than the death of over 2,500 Russian soldiers in Chechnya," said Andrei Mironov, a Russian human rights activist.

In fairness to Mr Putin, what he can do is limited, but what little he has done, he has done late. There was a long delay in accepting foreign help to try to save the men in the submarine. And only yesterday was a naval conference called in Severomorsk, near Murmansk, to investigate the cause of the accident.

Nor was Mr Putin directly responsible for the stream of misinformation and apparent lies about the Kursk which followed the disaster. The giant submarine was first described as "malfunctioning" and "descending to the ocean floor" on Sunday. In fact, an explosion - or possibly a collision - on the pervious evening sent the Kursk crashing into the sea floor with no time to send a signal or release its satellite communications beacon.

A major military disaster was always likely as the armed forces try to keep sophisticated equipment operating on a military budget of only $5bn (£3.2bn). A senior submarine officer gets paid only $200 a month.

The problem for Mr Putin is that he has portrayed himself as a hands-on president, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

This makes it difficult for him to distance himself from the tragedy of the Kursk. It does not mean, however, that he will not try. When Chechen suicide bombers killed 36 Russian soldiers earlier in the summer he publicly dressed down Marshal Igor Sergeyev, his Defence Minister, on television.

The Kursk submarine disaster does not prove that Mr Putin is personally ineffective, but it does show the emptiness of his rhetoric about restoring Russia's military and political strength.