Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 141

Suspicions have been raised by Moscow’s plan, in recovering the sunken submarine Kursk, to first lop off the front end before lifting the bulk of the vessel. Official sources say that the decision is based on concerns that unexploded torpedoes still in the weapons bay, which is located in this first compartment, could otherwise detonate during the lifting operation. But it is the front end of the sub that is most likely to yield clues regarding the reasons for the Kursk’s demise, and many believe that the government’s real purpose is to keep that information secret. Russian naval commanders have said that they intend to return next year to retrieve the Kursk’s front end, but that operation will be conducted by the Russian navy alone–without international assistance–so there will be no foreigners to verify what the Russian navy claims to have found. A Russian naval spokesman has made it clear that the portion of the Kursk that is to be raised this year will also be kept hidden from observers. “The secrecy regime will be observed in full,” the spokesman said. “This is a military operation, not a civilian one, and security will be a primary concern.” The navy’s position on this issue led Yuly Gladkeyevich, an expert with the independent AVN military news agency, to conclude that the “government is going to carefully control all information about” the salvage operation “so that any unpleasant facts can be edited out.” Senior Russian fleet commanders, it should be remembered, continue to insist that the Kursk’s demise was the result of a collision with a Western sub. Western experts, however, contend that the likely cause was an accident with a torpedo aboard the Kursk, and some Russian observers have suggested that the Russian naval command may itself be culpable in some way for the tragedy.

The reliance of Russian authorities on a very Soviet-era style of secrecy in other areas related to the Kursk recovery operation, meanwhile, has raised tensions between Russia and Norway. Like many other observers, Norwegian government officials were presumably disturbed earlier this year when Russian authorities suddenly and unexpectedly broke off lengthy negotiations with a consortium of companies having long experience in deep-sea recovery missions and instead gave the Kursk salvage contract to Mammoet. The move may have been based in part on financial considerations, but the primary motivation appears to have been one of time. Because of the long negotiations the original consortium–which included the Norwegian branch of U.S.-based Halliburton and the Dutch companies Heerema Marine Contractors and Smit Tak–was recommending that the operation be put off until next year. Mammoet, however, agreed despite its late entry into the talks to launch the project this summer (see the Monitor, May 29).

Against this background, the Norwegian government has expressed its concerns about the current plan to raise the Kursk, which lies just 155 miles off the Norwegian coast. Norwegian authorities have suggested that their Russian counterparts have not dealt satisfactorily with the potential for radioactive leaks occurring during the salvage operation, and earlier this month they urged Moscow to postpone the recovery operation until a study of this risk can be completed. Even more tellingly, perhaps, Norwegian authorities have also complained of a lack of openness on Moscow’s part–despite an earlier agreement that the two countries would cooperate in the Kursk salvage effort. Indeed, the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority has not even been permitted to examine the plans for safety during the salvage operation, and Norwegian government officials (not to mention environmentalist groups) have pointedly been denied the sort of access to the recovery site that has been granted to journalists. The Kremlin’s performance in this area suggests that its claims of openness are greatly exaggerated, and that behind the government’s public relations façade matters related to the Kursk are likely to be handled with much of the secrecy that prevailed during the Soviet era (AFP, July 2, 10; Norway Post, July 2; Christian Science Monitor, July 10; The Guardian, BBC, July 16; Bellona.no, July 17-18; Washington Post, July 18; Moscow Times, July 19; AP, July 20, 22; Reuters, July 21-22).