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Putin Says He Will Take Complete Responsibility for Kursk Disaster

By Richard Boudreaux
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin assumed political responsibility Wednesday night for the deaths of 118 sailors, ruling out “indiscriminate reprisals” against military leaders for the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk and a sluggish 10-day rescue effort.

At the same time, Putin vowed to save Russia’s military from the post-Soviet “disintegration” that he said was promoted by some of his leading critics and had contributed to the Aug. 12 disaster in the Barents Sea.

The president’s remarks in a 25-minute television interview, on a day of national mourning for the dead seamen, sought to project the image of a take-charge leader. Many of Putin’s compatriots had found him lacking in the wake of the Russian navy’s worst peacetime tragedy.

Kremlin watchers called his message an effective if painfully belated response to his first serious presidential crisis. They said it could shore up an approval rating that fell seven percentage points to 65 percent in one survey Wednesday.

“What we are going through today is very difficult,” he said in a hushed, somber voice. “Events like these should not divide but unite the people. Together we will overcome this and rebuild the army, the navy and the state.”

Putin disclosed that Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev, navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov and Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, had offered their resignations after calling off the rescue attempt Monday. He rejected them.

“Nothing will be done until a full understanding has been gained about what happened and why, whether anyone was guilty, truly guilty, or whether it was simply a tragic confluence of events,” he said. Then “if anybody is to blame, he will have to be punished.”

Putin said he ignored advice to fire or arrest some subordinates. “That’s how it was often done,” he said, alluding to a habit of his predecessor, President Boris N. Yeltsin, in times of crisis.

Putin’s behavior during his own first crisis since succeeding Yeltsin on Jan. 1 has revealed several things about the former KGB spy and political newcomer.

Initially popular because of his youth, seriousness and dynamism, Putin seemed aloof and distant after the Kursk sank. He stayed on vacation for nearly a week at the Black Sea resort of Sochi and didn’t request foreign rescuers until Aug. 16. Instead of going to the submarine’s Arctic port to energize rescue efforts, he portrayed himself last week as a functionary who didn’t want to get in the way.

Wednesday’s interview showed his reluctance to challenge a military leadership that offers crucial support.

Instead, he promised to pursue long-delayed restructuring that would make the bloated, underfunded armed forces more “compact, modern and well-paid.”

Under popular pressure, Putin finally went north to the Barents Sea navy base at Vidyayevo late Tuesday. Facing hundreds of residents and relatives of the dead crewmen in a stormy 90-minute meeting, he shared what he called his “immeasurable grief.”

Putin was also forced to call off a memorial service there Wednesday after angry relatives refused to attend such rites until the bodies are retrieved from the submarine. Cutting short a planned two-day visit to the base, he returned to Moscow.