Problems For Putin?

Nina, a building custodian in my apartment building in a placid neighborhood in southwestern Moscow, was shaking with frustration. "Now it turns out that the British are only going to get there on Saturday. On Saturday!" The night before, on Wednesday, the Russian government, had finally announced its willingness to accept Western offers of help in the race to save 118 sailors trapped in the nuclear submarine Kursk on the floor of the icy Barents Sea.

The announcement followed days of arrogant displays from Russian officialdom. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who heads the government commission assigned to investigate the disaster, bragged about the quality of Russian rescue equipment, which was, he said, "no worse than what the Americans have" - as if the Kursk were on display at a trade fair rather than in the center of a life-or-death emergency.

Days later, after a series of failed attempts to save any members of the crew, Klebanov was telling a press conference that Russia had never rejected any offers of foreign aid. The same day a Russian newspaper came out with an appropriate headline: "The Price of National Pride - Human Lives."

For ordinary Russians, this is a crisis that has struck right to their hearts. Yuri and Ivan, two of our building's small army of gray-haired security guards, were listening to Nina. Yuri nodded angrily. "It's only 100 meters down and they can't even pull it up."

"Pull it up with what?" asked the skeptical Ivan. "How are we supposed to do that?"

"That's the point," Yuri snapped. "We don't have the technology. They're our children down there. How can you not be worked up?"

"I'm so worked up I can't even sleep," says Nina. "And that Putin," she suddenly added. "What's he staying down there [on vacation] in Sochi for? It's a scandal."

That remark, in its fusion of emotion and politics, demonstrates why the Kursk accident may turn out to be a turning point in recent Russian history - and perhaps also in the country's relations with the West. Until now, Putin has ridden an unprecedented wave of support from ordinary folk. After years of drift and decline under Boris Yeltsin, he was just the formula Russians needed to feel good about themselves again.

Putin finally presented a leader Russians could look up to again: tough, competent, energetic. They voted for him in droves, undeterred by his lack of a coherent program, simply because he promised to "restore order" by getting tough with Russia's real and imagined enemies, ranging from corrupt business tycoons to Chechen separatists. His sky-high popularity ratings remained undented after 11 months of costly war against the Chechens, and even held firm after the recent bombing in the center of Moscow that cost a dozen lives. "It's the terrorists who are to blame, not Putin," one Muscovite told me in the wake of the attack. "He's the one who's trying to finish them off, and I'm all for it."

That vague sense of a generalized threat, easily blamed on outsiders, could also explain the extraordinary equanimity with which many in Moscow reacted to that attack -- just another natural catastrophe.

The Kursk, though, is already bringing a fundamental change to that perspective. This time citizens don't see it as the sundry enemies of the regime who are responsible for the disaster (even though senior naval officers have been working hard to put the blame on a collision with some other, preferably foreign, ship). This time it's the Russian government itself - the senior military and leading politicians - who have been working overtime to prove their own culpability for the disaster.

Many of the navy's original announcements about the accident turned out to be false. The sub sank on a Saturday, not Sunday - and it was only on Monday that the navy made the news public. It was an economical approach to the truth that soon had TV commentators wondering aloud: "Were two days lost?" Russians on the street were even less diplomatic.

And Putin himself? For the first days there was resounding silence. It was only in the middle of the week that he finally issued a few terse remarks -- from the cushy Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he's been vacationing. That Putin had elected to stay there throughout the crisis as a clear political misjudgment, compounded by his own delay in accepting outside help. The next day, possibly at the prodding of his advisers, Putin reappeared on TV -- this time clad in dark suit and tie, rather than casual sports clothes -- to explain his decision to stay away from the site of the Kursk's predicament.

This time, Russians can't blame anyone else for the accident -- not the oligarchs, nor the Chechens, nor even the Americans (still viewed by many Russians as the real instigators of most of their woes).

The general disillusionment triggered by this new failure of their leaders could spawn new cynicism among Russians. Perversely, though, it could also have some positive side-effects. Not only are there no foreign bogeymen, but so far, at least, the role played by foreigners in the tragedy has been positive. (Among other remarkable details, Russian TV showed letters of sympathy that had been sent to a Russian naval veterans' association by American and British submariners.)

Perhaps, as a result, this scandal may ultimately make Russians more realistic about the source of their country's ills -- and perhaps even inspire new accountability among their leaders. The price of that lesson, however, looks likely to be 118 lives. And for those like Nina, that's simply too high.