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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Putin's `blame game' could have deadly end

In August of 2000, a torpedo exploded aboard the Kursk nuclear submarine, sinking it and killing all 118 men aboard. The event was recorded as Russia's biggest naval accident.

Two years later - in August of 2002 - one of the world's largest helicopters crashed on a minefield outside a Russian military base in Chechnya, killing most of 150 people aboard. A few of the victims, mostly Russian soldiers, survived the crash.

They continued to die in hospitals last week, when the fatalities' count reached the memorable 118. The event, which is still being investigated, was recorded as the largest air force disaster in Russia's history.

Numerologists and other superstitious folk in Russia are talking about “nekhoroshiy mesyatz Avgust,” or August being a bad month for Russia.

But the supernatural has nothing to do with it. It is just a freak coincidence, a pure chance.

The twist of fortune, however, illuminates a dangerous trend.

Much like the sunken submarine, the plummeting helicopter symbolizes the deteriorating state of affairs in unruly Russia as a whole and in the Russian military in particular. Safety regulations and procedures there often exist on paper only.

President Vladimir Putin promptly “explained” the two disasters to his constituency. He predictably blamed Russian military commanders for ignoring safety regulations.

Mr. Putin was right to fault the military.

But the Russian president should have blamed himself first and foremost, rather than look for scapegoats. As the supreme commander of the Russian military, his role is more than posing for the cameras in snazzy fighter pilot's gear.

Interestingly, he abstained from his usual inflammatory rhetoric against the Chechen rebels, whom he had threatened to “mochyt v sortirakh” - Russian underworld slang for “kill in the toilets” - at the outset of his presidency.

That's because focusing the blame on the Chechens this time would be like blaming himself.

As the supreme commander, it would be his prerogative to end the losing war in Chechnya, which he claims to control while people continue to die in ambushes every day. If not for the war, the Russian soldiers would not have ended up in a burning chopper.

As the supreme commander, Mr. Putin should deliver on his talk of cutting the Russian military, substituting the draftees with a professional force.

But so far, it has been just talk, with an occasional media hint at the bureaucratic resistance in the Russian military-industrial complex. I guess that's when Mr. Putin's much touted “strong presidency” and “pragmatism” is tested.

Mr. Putin wouldn't be an esteemed KGB veteran and an able politico if he did not know how to play the blame game.

The game, however, is dangerously expanding, to include the neighboring Georgia. Mr. Putin has been increasingly vocal in blaming Georgia for failing to seal its territory against the Chechen rebels who have been seeking refuge in its rugged mountains.

Pointing fingers flew earlier this month, when a military jet bearing Russian identification bombed Georgian territory, killing one civilian and wounding seven, whom it obviously mistook for rebels.

The Russian military later claimed it was a Georgian jet purposefully disguised as a Russian one. Why the Georgians would risk provoking the wrath of a far superior Russian military is beyond comprehension.

The fact that the Western diplomats have turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of their “Russian ally in the war on terror,” in Chechnya and now likely in Georgia as well, is disturbing.

The United States and the European Union would be well advised to cut Russia down to size before the blaming game sends the war in Chechnya spinning out of control.



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