‘We couldnʼt tell the relatives’ Declassified transcripts show that Putin was obsessed with polling even as Bill Clinton consoled him after the Kursk submarine disaster
Back on August 29, 2019, the Clinton Digital Library declassified a whole archive of transcripts that capture telephone calls and private conversations between members of the Clinton administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dated between 1999 and 2001, most of the documents were classified at the time as “secret.” In that short span of time, Putin wore many hats, communicating with Washington as Federal Security Service director, prime minister, acting president, and president. In September 2000, Clinton and Putin began with a meeting in New York with a discussion about the aftermath of the Kursk submarine disaster, which killed all 118 sailors aboard.
This text is the first in a series of reports by Meduza looking back at the Clinton-Putin correspondence. Twenty years later, these records demonstrate the state of Russian foreign policy at the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
On September 6, 2000, the Waldorf Astoria’s presidential suite in New York earned its name when the room was used to host a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton. Sergey Prikhodko (Putin’s deputy chief of staff) and Strobe Talbott (the deputy secretary of state and a fluent Russian-language speaker) joined in as notetakers.
The meeting’s first subject was the “Kursk” submarine, which sank on August 12, 2000, during naval exercises in the Barents Sea. Investigators later discovered that the accident was due to the explosion of a training torpedo. Most of the crew of 118 people were killed immediately, but 23 sailors retreated to safety in the ship’s ninth compartment, where they managed to survive for several more hours (or possibly even days) before they also died.
President Clinton makes a statement about national missile defense during pool spray. Cameras leave.
The President: Sorry for all youʼve been through with the loss of the Kursk. When something like this happens, people around the world identify with the victims and their families, but I identified with you, too. You must have had to put up with a lot of second-guessing. That always happens. After Oklahoma City, a lot of people asked if the building was properly protected and whether we had let terrorists into the country. So my heart went out to the people at the bottom of the sea, but it went out to everyone else as well.
President Putin: There was no good option for me here. I was caught between bad options and worse options. Some people told me that if Iʼd let a small submarine go in there right away and at least make a stab at rescuing the guys, my ratings would have gone up. You canʼt let something like this be driven by public relations. Youʼve got to give priority to actually saving people.
I appreciate your sincere support. Strange as it seems, the polls afterward actually reveal that the incident didnʼt affect my standing. But my great fear is that something like this could recur.
The President: We operate in a different environment now. If a building blows up in Moscow, itʼs as though our own relatives were involved. Or if people in Mozambique are driven by flooding to have to take shelter in trees. In many ways, this is a good thing. It reminds us of the humanity of others. It makes it harder to hate. But it also sometimes makes it harder for a leader to do the right thing because all these strong feelings are generated.
President Putin: We felt impotent during this whole disaster. It now looks as though all the crew died within 60 or 90 seconds. We couldnʼt tell the relatives, but there was a hole about two meters wide blown in the hull that flooded the first three sections of the sub. Iʼm not even sure how we can get the bodies out. There are a lot of cod in those waters, and there may not be any flesh on the bones. We tried to apply the brakes to all this furor, but some people are strange, and they just kept feeding it. Thatʼs just a fact of life.
What happened with Putin’s ratings
We don’t actually know which ratings Putin was citing. It’s possible that he was referring to non-public sociological polling conducted by Russia’s Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (which a few years later was folded into the Federal Protective Service).
According to data published by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (which at the time was still managed by Yuri Levada), the Kursk submarine disaster did not in fact affect Vladimir Putin’s ratings significantly. Commenting on the results of a nationwide survey carried out in late September 2000, the center’s analysts noted that “the president’s trust rating has returned to its previous positions in mid-August.”
“On the whole, do you approve or disapprove of Vladimir Putin’s actions as Russian president?”
Two days after meeting with President Clinton, Vladimir Putin granted an interview to CNN anchor Larry King. The exchange proved to be memorable. At the top of the interview, King asked the Russian president what happened with the Kursk. “It sank,” Putin said with a smirk. That expression has haunted the president ever since.
In fact, Putin told King quite a bit more about the submarine disaster (repeating several points he made privately to Bill Clinton). When asked what he might have done differently, the Russian president said he would have “canceled work meetings” at his retreat in Sochi and “acted differently here” because his actions “were used for certain attacks and to undermine the executive branch itself, which is inherently bad and harmful to the state.”
How the Kremlin “applied the brakes to all this furor”
On August 12, 2000 — the day the Kursk sank — Putin went on vacation in Sochi. The president was informed about the disaster the next day, but the public wasn’t told until August 14. Putin didn’t end his vacation until August 18, when he left for Crimea (still under Ukrainian sovereignty) for an informal meeting with fellow leaders representing the Commonwealth of Independent States. Due to the accident in the Barents Sea, the summit was cut short and Putin returned to Moscow after just a few hours. That same day, he explained that he wanted to travel to the disaster site immediately, but he refrained because non-specialists and high-ranking state officials tend to interfere more than help. “Everyone should man their own station,” the president argued.
The Russian authorities didn’t officially acknowledge the Kursk crew’s deaths until August 22, though they had this information as early as August 14, according to Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who led the government commission that investigated the accident. Despite this intelligence, Putin said on August 16 that the Navy was doing everything it could to rescue the crew. Even as late as August 20, at a meeting with bishops from the Russian Orthodox Church, the president repeated these claims: “Sailors are doing everything they can to rescue their comrades. Regrettably, it is not we but the events that determine the outcome — yet we will do everything in our power until the very last moment to rescue all those who can be rescued. We will fight for every life, and we will hope for the best.”
On August 22, Putin signed an executive order declaring a day of mourning over the losses in the Barents Sea. That same day, he flew to the Murmansk region and visited the town of Vidyayevo to meet with the Kursk crew members’ families, many of whom still hoped some of the sailors would be saved. Speaking to the relatives privately in an exchange captured on a journalist’s microphone, Putin revealed for the first time that the damage sustained by the submarine left “a very large hole” in the ship’s hull. The newspaper Kommersant later reported this remark.
The declassified transcript of Putin’s conversation with Bill Clinton suggests that the Russian president did in fact know for some time that most of the sailors had died, but he waited to disclose this information. “We couldnʼt tell the relatives, but there was a hole about two meters wide blown in the hull that flooded the first three sections of the sub,” Putin told Clinton, clearly referring to the days before his trip to Vidyayevo.
On September 2, 2000, the television network ORT (later rebranded as Pervyi Kanal) aired the final broadcast of Sergey Dorenko’s evening news program. Dorenko devoted the entire show to the Kursk disaster, sharply criticizing the president’s behavior during the rescue operation. Afterward, Dorenko was taken off the air and fired.
Three days later (shortly before Putin sat down with Clinton in New York), the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky publicly appealed to the Russian president, saying that he’d been ordered to sell his 49-percent stake in ORT. “Last week, a senior official in your administration presented me with an ultimatum: transfer my ORT shares to the government within two weeks or follow in Gusinsky’s footsteps — an apparent reference to Butyrka prison. The reason for the proposal is your dissatisfaction with how ORT reported events related to the Kursk submarine accident. ‘The president himself wants to manage ORT,’ your representative informed me,” Berezovsky said in his open letter.
At the end of his appeal to Putin, Boris Berezovsky said he would entrust ORT to “journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia.” In reality, however, the TV network ended up under state control.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock