Question: Mr Putin, today is a tragic day for the whole country. We are mourning those who were on board the Kursk submarine which now lies on the bottom of the Barents Sea.
Yesterday you went to Vidyayevo to meet with the members of the families, the relatives of the Kursk crew. And surely they have asked you questions.
Questions will also arise in society. Why wasn’t it announced as soon as it happened? Will it be an open investigation, will society at large know about it?
You visited the home of the widow – though I shudder to utter this word – of the captain of the submarine, Gennady Lyachin. You have seen how these people live, you have seen the staircase, you have seen the flat.
And another question that is of concern to everyone has to do with foreign help.
Vladimir Putin: What can I say?… First of all about the meeting you have mentioned. What can one say? … No words can be adequate. Words fail me. One feels like wailing.
Someone said during the meeting yesterday: ‘You assumed office very recently, just a little over a hundred days ago. But you have assumed a burden and you must carry it.’ That person was right. So, even though I have been occupying the Kremlin office for a little over a hundred days, I still feel fully responsible for this tragedy and I have a great sense of guilt.
You know, what is distressing is that, as has often happened here in recent times, attempts are being made to profit from this tragedy. I would say that some people try to get political dividends out of it or further the interests of certain groups. And some people have rightly noted that the people who have spoken the loudest in defence of the seamen are precisely the people who have for a long time presided over the dissolution of the Army, the Navy and the State. Some of them have even managed to amass millions, a little bit here and a little bit there. They would do much better to sell their villas on the Mediterranean coast of France and Spain. But then they would have to explain why all this property has been registered in other people’s and companies’ names. And we would ask where that money came from. But let God be their judge.
Of course, we should think about the seamen and their families. We should think about the future of the Army and the Navy. And without any doubt we should draw conclusions. You know, the relatives in Vidyayevo yesterday and again today, many prominent and experienced people who have been in politics for many years, told me that I should display strong will. I should fire someone or better still, send someone to jail. That would be the easiest way out of the situation for me. But in my opinion, it would be the worst way out. Such things have happened many times before. Unfortunately, it does not change the substance. If somebody is to blame, then they should be punished, without any doubt. But we must get an objective picture of the causes of the tragedy and the course of the rescue work. Only then can we draw any conclusions.
As of today I can tell you the following: the day before yesterday Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, and yesterday the Commander of the Navy and Commander of the Northern Fleet, handed in their resignations. I will not endorse their resignations. I will not do so until it is fully clear what has happened, what the causes are and whether anyone is to blame. I mean, people who are really guilty, and not just victims of a tragic set of circumstances. There will be no sweeping reprisals on an impulse or due to circumstances. I will be with the Army, with the Navy and with the whole people. And together we will restore the Army, the Navy and the nation. I have no doubt about it.
I am very saddened to hear something that has been said frequently in the past few days, that the honour of the Navy, the pride of Russia, has sunk together with the Kursk. Our country has lived through even worse times. We and our ancestors have faced even more terrible disasters. We have survived everything. Russia has always had a future. Today we are living through a very traumatic experience. But I am absolutely sure that events of this kind should unite society and the people and not divide them. I am sure that together we will not only overcome the consequences of the tragedies and disasters of recent years – natural, social and man-made. We will overcome everything and restore the Army, the Navy and our state.
Question: Mr Putin, during the meeting at Vidyayevo yesterday you talked not only with the wives. You also talked with the Navy men whose comrades are now lying under the Barents Sea. As President, were you able to explain the tragedy to them? Did they trust you? Did they feel that you were telling them the truth and were not holding anything back?
Vladimir Putin: You know, the relatives of the Kursk crew are worthy of their husbands, brothers and sons. They are brave people. They are showing great courage in the face of the tragedy that we all feel so deeply. I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience what they are experiencing now. And yet I had the impression that we understood each other. It is hard for them to believe that the Government was powerless in the early days. But there were and still are many experts, many people who have long worked with the Navy. They of course understood what was happening and what is happening. One of the problems that has been mooted from the beginning was making information available promptly, to be followed by a prompt start of rescue work. And, of course, the question that you have asked about inviting foreign specialists.
Let us review the chronology. Communication with the submarine was lost at 23:30 on the 12th. From that moment on it was declared missing. In such situations up to seven days are allocated for the search mission. The submarine was located at 4:00 on the 13th. The Defence Minister reported to me at 7:00 in the morning. What did the military know by that time?
First, that communication had been lost with the submarine. Second, that it was lying at the bottom of the sea. And third, that contact had been established with the help of the technical means available to the Navy. That was all they knew. It was a naval exercise. What was there to announce at that moment? One might of course have announced that communication had been lost with the submarine. It was an emergency, but such things happen. One may of course argue and criticise. But I wouldn’t condemn the military for this. When it became clear that the situation was critical, the media reported it immediately on August 14th. But rescue work got underway immediately after communication was lost. I repeat, immediately after communication was lost. The fact that the submarine was located within four and a half hours shows that rescue work had begun.
Now, as regards the issue whether the military had the resources and assets for the rescue work. I think I should dwell on it. The submarine was designed in the mid-1980s, the design was completed at the end of the 1980s, and it envisaged that the submarine was to be built together with rescue vessels, mini-submarines, and they have been used by our Navy. They were in good condition, they were at the disposal of the Navy and they were used. The Navy counted on them. When the Defence Minister reported to me that they had all the necessary resources, he was telling the truth. That was how the submarine was designed.
If you look at the way the situation with the use of foreign assistance developed, the first official offer of help came on the 15th. And the Navy immediately agreed to it. They started to coordinate the technical parameters and discuss the organisation of joint efforts. As we know, the Norwegian divers opened the hatch of the submarine on the sixth day. On the sixth day. Sad though it may be, but it means that even if we had asked for help on the 13th we would still have had to wait throughout the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th. You see what I mean.
Let me stress that the Norwegian divers are not military divers. They work for a private company used on offshore oil rigs. I am sure that if our oil companies start to develop the continental shelf they too will have such divers.
The question is, why didn’t the Navy have divers? This is the fundamental and the most important question. The answer is basically clear. I don’t think it was a smart decision, to put it mildly, but the answer is that the designers thought that the rescue means built simultaneously with the submarine would have been sufficient. And anyway, even with the use of divers it is impossible to rescue people without diving bells. That is clear. Obviously, just opening the hatch would have destroyed all living beings inside the submarine. So nothing could be done without a diving bell. All this warrants the conclusion that a sweeping accusation of the military’s incompetence and delayed reporting and so on are ungrounded. These accusations are unfair. But this is not to say – I repeat – that we should not examine deeply and thoroughly the causes of the tragedy and how the situation developed. This will of course be done by a technical commission, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security service, which will provide operational support of the criminal case investigation.
Question: Mr Putin, you were in the home of Gennady Lyachin, the Kursk commander. And you had a conversation there. It wouldn’t be proper to ask you about the details… you have seen it all… You probably walked through the streets of the seamen’s town…
Vladimir Putin: I’ll tell you this: of course I walked in the streets of the town and visited the flat.
First, I have myself lived in such flats. There was nothing shocking or surprising for me. It is deplorable, absolutely deplorable that our military, the elite of the Armed Forces, the elite of the Navy, live in such conditions. But if you think it came as a revelation to me, you are mistaken. The question is how to put an end to this humiliating situation.
Question: It is humiliating…
Vladimir Putin: Of course, it is. There can only be one answer: our Armed Forces should match the needs, on the one hand, and the potential of the state on the other. The Army must be lean, but modern and well-paid. That of course takes some time, but this was precisely the subject of discussion at the recent meeting of the Security Council: the number of parameters of the Army and Navy, their armaments and the living standards of the servicemen, and the cash flows within the Defence Ministry. This was the subject of discussion at the Security Council meeting. And I think that we have grounds for hoping that when the recent decisions of the Security Council are carried out we will meet the targets they set.
Question: So the officers, the core personnel have some hope, Mr Putin?
Vladimir Putin: Hope springs eternal. But what we need is not hopes and promises. We need practical actions so that people feel the difference. We should stop talking and start acting. We have been discussing military reform for at least eight years and perhaps even ten years. Unfortunately, little has changed. I very much hope that we will manage to move forward, without any spurts, we cannot afford that because we cannot tolerate a sudden collapse of our defence capability and we should follow the laws about the social security of servicemen. To some extent we are hamstrung by these legal frameworks, but we have to comply with them. We will move in the direction I have indicated.
Question: Mr Putin, while in Vidyayevo and on board the Peter the Great cruiser in Murmansk we heard one and the same question: what will the Government do with the submarine? Will it lift it and pay the last respects to the victims? Will the crew be lifted and will the relatives be able to leave Vidyayevo?
Vladimir Putin: We will try to remove all of our Navy men from the submarine and bring them ashore. Various technical suggestions have been made and it is up to the experts to make the final decision. The most simple and effective way is to cut the body of the submarine. These issues are now being discussed, the issues of lifting the submarine and towing it to shallow water. Various options are open, and we are working on them with our specialists and our foreign partners.
By the way, I would like to take this opportunity and thank the heads of foreign states and foreign citizens for their assistance and for the condolences that are still pouring into Russia.
But it has turned out that our main partners today – the Norwegians – are unable to solve the problem single-handed. As the Foreign Minister told me today, they will get some additional equipment from the Dutch. So, in any case the submarine will either be lifted or divers will enter it through holes that will have to be made in its body, and in any case it will be an international project.
Question: And will it be followed through?
Vladimir Putin: By all means.
Question: Thank you very much.