A hard lesson for President Putin

How Vladimir Putin must yearn for Soviet times. In Stalin's day, a leader would not have been disturbed from his holiday for a mere submarine disaster. A total news blackout would have ensured that no murmur got out for months - if ever. Instead, the hamfisted Putin's blackout lasted only a couple of days. He then compounded the offence by appearing in shirtsleeves, seemingly more concerned with salvaging his holiday than saving his sailors. He was certainly loath to ask for foreign assistance for several days.

How Vladimir Putin must yearn for Soviet times. In Stalin's day, a leader would not have been disturbed from his holiday for a mere submarine disaster. A total news blackout would have ensured that no murmur got out for months - if ever. Instead, the hamfisted Putin's blackout lasted only a couple of days. He then compounded the offence by appearing in shirtsleeves, seemingly more concerned with salvaging his holiday than saving his sailors. He was certainly loath to ask for foreign assistance for several days.

In response, the newly free Russian press has been merciless. Refused a list of the trapped sailors by the naval authorities, one paper paid a £400 bribe for the names, and printed them all, commenting, "We have lost all faith in the honour of our commanders". The Russian military has retreated to Soviet-style news management: bluster and lies upon lies. In the days when the truth could cost you more than a job, that was perhaps forgivable. Not now.

Mr Putin's defence - that his presence in Murmansk would have hindered the rescue - may be justified. Western politicians tend to swarm to scenes of disasters, and their presence rarely offers practical help. But it is what relatives and the public expect. They certainly do not want their leaders topping up their tans while sons and husbands are dying. Perhaps asking for foreign help earlier and Mr Putin going to Murmansk would have been futile. But that is not the point. He needs to learn from this disaster that, in a democracy, such steps are sometimes just what is required to reassure a nation.

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