The lessons Mr Putin can learn from the tragedy in the Barents Sea

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In most respects, the news could hardly be worse. Moscow confirmed yesterday that all 118 men on board the submarine
Kursk are now assumed dead. The outcome is as grim as could have been imagined.

In most respects, the news could hardly be worse. Moscow confirmed yesterday that all 118 men on board the submarine Kursk are now assumed dead. The outcome is as grim as could have been imagined.

The human tragedy has been compounded by political obstinacy. The abject failure of the Russian government to address the real issues was a conspicuous reminder of how little the government mindset has moved in recent years.

At every turn, too little information was given, too late. The accident itself was not reported until a full 48 hours after it took place on 12 August. Initially, the authorities even lied about the date. There was an absurdity, too, in the refusal of the Kremlin to accept help when it was first offered by Britain and by neighbouring Norway.

A key part of the problem has been the refusal by Russia to allow itself to lose face. Dean Acheson famously said of Britain in the 1960s that it had lost an empire and not yet found a role. That is doubly true of Russia today, which seethes with resentment against the rest of the world; politicians and voters alike are only to happy to believe that rapacious foreigners are responsible for all of the country's woes.

A change in this mentality - or even the beginnings of a change - might, with luck, be one positive knock-on effect of the Kursk catastrophe. Certainly, the precedents are there. The refusal of the Kremlin to tell even quarter-truths after the disastrous explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 was a defining historic moment. It kickstarted the whole process of glasnost - greater openness in the media - which came to play a key role in ending communism and the Soviet Union itself.

The silence and official evasions about the Kursk may prove equally important in the years to come. Certainly, the Kremlin is shaken by the popular anger at its lack of public honesty in the past 10 days. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will never again believe he can hide away in the Crimea like some latter-day Brezhnev, waiting for the storm to blow over.

Crucially, too, millions of Russians know that Western countries offered help, and were rebuffed by the Kremlin, who, shockingly but unsurprisingly, cared more about national pride than human lives. Despite what some in Moscow have suggested in recent days, the moral is emphatically not that the West should write off a few billion dollars of Russian debt, to free up money for the Kremlin to modernise its navy. Rather, it is that Russia should be more open and trusting. If the West is treated as a true partner, not as a collection of hostile money-grabbers, ordinary Russians will undoubtedly stand to gain.

If the Kremlin had been less mistrustful in the past week, some Kursk submariners might still be alive today. That is a lesson that Russian voters will not quickly forget. The West can help - but only if Mr Putin and his colleagues in Moscow are humble enough to accept such help. That applies to Russia's basket-case economy as much as it does to disasters at sea.

Russians may blame the West with monotonous regularity for the poverty that still engulfs their country. But international co-operation to improve Russia's circumstances is only possible if Russia itself acknowledges that the West is no longer the enemy. We have moved on, into a new century; Mr Putin, too, must learn to move on.

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