Margaret Thatcher discusses Vladimir Putin in 2000
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Throughout his long presidency, Vladimir Putin has received criticism both at home and abroad, most recently for his launching a war on Ukraine, which has led to the death of more than 200,000 military personnel on both sides, according to US figures. But an unearthed video of Margaret Thatcher giving a speech reveals how the former Prime Minister had identified the Russian President’s lack of humanity just months into his presidency when she criticised him for his failure to act quickly in reaction to the Kursk submarine disaster.
In the unearthed clip, Mrs Thatcher describes looking at the pictures of the “new Mr Putin” and trying to find a “trace of humanity”, a comment that was met with laughter from the audience at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, in September 2000.
“Because you know what happened? They had the terrible tragedy of the submarine going down, straight to the floor. Whether there was an explosion inside or not, we don’t know,” she said.
“But it was very interesting what happened. If ever there’s a calamity in the West, the whole of the armed forces will go, they’ll take everything there immediately.
“The politicians immediately will get together and say ‘what help do we want? They can have anything we can give. We haven’t got the help, we’ll get it from somewhere else.’ There will be anxiety because what mattered was not the submarine, but the lives of those in it.”
The Kursk, a 500ft long submarine assigned to the Russian Northern Fleet, was taking part in the “Summer X” fleet exercise, the first Russian naval exercise in more than a decade, in the Barents Sea in August 2000 when disaster struck.
The pride of the Russian fleet thanks to its supersonic cruise missiles ready in the event of World War Three, the Kursk contained two nuclear reactors and could remain at sea for months at a time.
But just two days into the exercise, on August 12, an explosion rocked the exercise area, most likely caused by a torpedo.
Then a second explosion went off, tearing a hole in the bow, which caused the Kursk to sink to the seabed with 118 men killed on board instantly.
The blasts — one of which measured 4.2 on the Richter scale — were picked up by Western agencies monitoring the area with NATO alerted. Both the British and Norwegians offered to help but were initially rebuffed.
Although most of the crew were killed, 23 men survived but were trapped in a leaking compartment in the submarine. It was predicted that they could survive for seven days at most.
Putin, who had become President at the beginning of that year, was on holiday at the time and made no statement about the Kursk for over a week. He only visited the site nine days after the accident.
The alert was not raised for six hours after the first blast. Four days after the disaster, the Russians finally asked Norway to send deep-sea divers and accepted the help of the British, including Commodore David Russell, of the Royal Navy.
Commodore Russell, speaking in 2019, said: “Our view was, ‘We’ve got to get down there as soon as we can’. And [the Russians’] view was very much, ‘Oh, no, no, we can’t do that. We’re just fine. It’s all under control’.
“There would be people inside Moscow who were worried about secrets. Kursk was their latest and greatest submarine. They had nuclear weapons and communications equipment, all of which would be very highly classified.”
Relatives of the crew were left desperately waiting for news of their loved ones’ fate.
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Mrs Thatcher said that the British forces were ready to go and help, and sent some small submarines in the UK’s arsenal, there for such an occasion.
“The interesting thing was the new leader of the [former] Soviet Union did not act quickly… He didn’t try to mobilise everyone else,” she added.
Putin’s hesitancy, Mrs Thatcher said, was “very revealing” as she said it demonstrated that “they still do not value human life in the same way that we do”.
It was not until nine days after the incident that the British and Norweigan divers finally accessed the vessel, only to find the entire crew dead.
Putin faced widespread criticism for his lack of action, something that “relieved” Mrs Thatcher in “one way” as it showed that those in the Soviet Union were aware that “a great deal more could be done than is being done at the moment”.
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