Thursday, August 12, 2010

Window on Eurasia: What the Kursk Tragedy Taught Vladimir Putin about Crisis Management

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 12 – Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster, one of the key events at the start of Vladimir Putin’s term as Russian president and one that appears to have led him to adopt the media-savvy approach he has employed in all crisis situations since that time.
The course of events a decade ago is instructive even now, as the Barents Observer pointed out this week. Eleven days after being elected president, Putin visited the Northern Fleet’s main base and went out to see on the “Karelia,” a nuclear-powered missile submarine. On his return, he said that Russian subs should again go to sea on a regular basis.
Putin’s instructions led the fleet to prepare for what was to be the largest Russian naval exercise since the end of the Sovieet Union. The ill-fated “Kursk” was to have a starring role in the exercise itself in the Barents Sea and then go on station in the Mediterranean Sea. And this push to go to sea may have contributed to the disaster.
On August 12th, there was an explosion onboard, and two days later, Moscow admitted that there was a problem, although it initially refused offers of assistance from abroad, even after a Russian rescue submarine failed to work, as Thomas Nilsen of the Barents Observer noted (
“Putin himself,” Nilsen writes, “didn’t return from his summer residence by the Black Sea before it became clear that there were no survivors. {And] when he first appeared in Vidyayevo, the home port of the “Kursk on the Kola Peninsula, [the Russian leader} was bashed for his alledged mishandling of the disaster.”
“Putin learned something about live TV broadcasts that day in Vidyayevo,” Nilsen says, and clearly committed himself not to suffereing the same fate again. Just how he would avoid that has become evident from his responses to subsequent crises, including the terrible fires that have engulfed much of Russia this summer.
In a comment posted on, Moscow analyst Grigory Dobromelov suggests that the lessons that Putin has learned and continues to put into practice include a willingness to show himself as “a hands on” leader who can work magic by making timely appearances, sharing the grief of victims, and finding others to blame (
Because central Russian television shows his actions almost in real time, Russians see their president in precisely that way and have the message he wants delivered constantly reinforced: “Without [Putin’s} personal participation, not one issue in the country can be resolved.”
This skillful news management, commentator Dmitry Travin adds, has made Putin “the Teflon president,” someone Russians do not usually hold accountable for any disasters that may take place but rather someone they look to as uniquely capable of coping and overcoming them (
But Putin has used this carefully staged media approach so often that it may be wearing thin. A survey of Russian blogs showed that many of the participants in such forums now are sharply criticizing him for his attempts to win public relations points by his selective involvement in dealing with the fire crisis (
And while such people are an exception to the broader population where it appears Putin continues to work his magic, there is growing evidence that his name and visage may not have the powers that they did earlier and that the media approach he adopted to rule a decade ago may no longer be as effective.
According to “Vedomosti” today, the branch of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party in Tyva has decided to drop references to the Russian premier in its advertising in an upcoming campaign there, a step it took after poll results showed that references to Putin would not help the party’s chances (

No comments: