Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 172

In remarks made to reporters on September 8, the Russian official tasked with investigating the tragic loss of the submarine Kursk–Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov–said that the causes of the disaster would be known by the time that the government commission he heads meets on September 13. That date and that meeting have come and gone, as have a day of testimony by Klebanov before hostile Russian lawmakers. Yet not only do Russian officials appear to be no closer to an explanation of why the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea on August 12, but they also seem still to be clinging to the same trio of possible explanations they elaborated soon after the accident.

Indeed, in some respects the same confusion which reigned during the Russian Navy’s feeble attempts to rescue the Kursk’s crew continues to prevail with regard to the investigation into the accident’s cause. Klebanov’s government investigating committee appears to be going nowhere fast, and managed only with some difficulty to head off the creation of an independent parliamentary committee which would have conducted its own investigation into the disaster. At the same time, a highly controversial report in a German newspaper suggested not only that a Russian navy vessel may have been responsible for the Kursk’s demise, but that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)–the KGB successor organization once headed by now President Vladimir Putin–may be carrying out a secret inquiry of its own into the accident. Such developments suggest that the investigation into the Kursk disaster will continue to be marked by partisan politicking bickering and may also be undermined by intragovernmental machinations.

At a meeting of Klebanov’s governmental commission on August 29, it was announced that investigators had eliminated all but three of some twelve possible explanations that they were considering to explain the loss of the Kursk (see the Monitor, August 31). Klebanov did not make public at that time what those three scenarios were. It has, however, since then become public knowledge that the government believed the Kursk had gone down as the result either of an explosion in the torpedo compartment, a collision with an unexploded World War II mine, or a collision with another–read U.S. or British–submarine. Those remain the three scenarios on which Klebanov’s commission is basing its investigations. Military leaders, joined by a host of government and parliamentary officials, continue to point to the last scenario as the most likely, despite repeated claims by the British and U.S. governments that their submarines, three of which were in the Barents at the time of the accident, had nothing to do with the Kursk’s demise. Russian officialdom, meanwhile, has been slow to accept U.S. and other Western intelligence data which suggests the first of the three possible scenarios is likely the closest to the truth. In an effort to convince the Russians that the downing of the Kursk was the result of two explosions, the second more powerful than the first, the United States had turned over to Moscow sonar recordings of those blasts.

Aside from the politicization of the Kursk investigation, which has seen both the military leadership and the government try to deflect widespread public criticism of official handling of the Kursk disaster, the waters around the Kursk have been further muddied by several other unexpected developments. One was the report–published by the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung on September 8–suggesting that a submarine-hunting missile fired by the Russian cruiser Peter the Great had been the cause of the Kursk’s sinking. Indeed, the alleged source for this claim generated as much controversy as the substance. The newspaper claimed to be quoting from a secret report which the FSB submitted to President Vladimir Putin on August 31. According to the Berliner Zeitung, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev had put together a special investigating team which had concluded that a “granit” missile, possibly equipped with a new homing device, had been fired by the Peter the Great as part of the naval exercise in which the Kursk was also participating. The FSB report allegedly said that shortly after the missile was fired the bridge of the Peter the Great registered two underwater explosions. Their significance was reportedly overlooked originally, but were reassessed later, when it was realized that they accorded with the Kursk’s position (Reuters, BBC, September 8; Vremya MN, September 9).

The Berliner Zeitung story was not a complete revelation. Several weeks earlier the Russian newspaper Moskovskie vedomosti (August 21), quoting a “reliable” source in Severomorsk, had also speculated that a Granit missile from the Peter the Great might be responsible for the Kursk’s demise (see the Monitor, August 31). Moreover, in the wake of the Berliner Zeitung story, a Russian lawmaker came to a similar conclusion. Sergei Zhekov, a member of the Federation Council and himself a former submariner, said that his own investigation into the Kursk disaster had convinced him that the Peter the Great probably had caused the tragedy in the Barents. Zhekov, who is serving on a commission created by the upper house to look into the disaster, said that the cruiser had fired five missiles during the training exercise, but that only four were later recovered. Zhekov also dismissed Defense Ministry claims that the Kursk had collided with a foreign submarine. That version of events, he said “is very convenient for the navy command and the Kursk’s designers.” He proclaimed his readiness to ensure that military leaders are not able to hide their culpability for the Kursk disaster (Russian agencies, September 14; UPI, September 15).

Not surprisingly, official Russian sources immediately denied the Berliner Zeitung story, and an FSB statement was quoted as saying that “there is no basis for the information in the German newspaper.” A naval spokesman, meanwhile, said that Russian ships never carry missiles armed with real warheads during training exercises, while the commander of the Peter the Great itself denied that the Kursk had even been close enough to the ship for a strike to be theoretically possible. Klebanov denied the possibility that the FSB might be conducting any sort of investigation into the Kursk disaster independent of his own government commission (AP, September 8, 11).

A commotion related to the Kursk investigation was also raised in Moscow this past weekend by Russian news agency reports alleging that U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen had refused a Russian Defense Ministry request to allow Russian naval experts to examine the U.S. subs in the Barents at the time of the Kursk disaster. The examinations, obviously, would be aimed as ascertaining whether or not the U.S. subs had collided with the Kursk. The reported U.S. refusal provided further ground for Russian military spokesmen and several lawmakers to renew their allegations that a U.S. sub was indeed involved in the Kursk’s downing. There was enough vagueness to the Russian news reports, however, to raise some doubts of their accuracy. That was true despite the fact that Klebanov had complained to lawmakers on September 15 that Russia had not yet received a response to requests addressed in this context to a number of foreign countries asking if Russian experts might examine their submarines (Reuters, UPI, Russian agencies, September 16; Itar-Tass, September 15).

That appearance before Russian lawmakers was apparently not a pleasant one for Klebanov. Reports made clear that many Duma deputies were hostile to the Russian deputy prime minister, criticizing him for the government’s mishandling of the Kursk disaster and suggesting that he should consider resigning his post as a result. For his part, Klebanov made the dubious claim that misinformation provided by the government in the aftermath of the disaster was solely the result of confusion rather than part of any attempt to mislead the public or to deflect blame for the accident. He may also have surprised some of his audience by telling them that his commission “did not find any faults” with the conduct of the rescue mission mounted by Russian naval forces. With the help of Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev, Klebanov did at least convince Duma deputies not to create their own independent commission to investigate the Kursk disaster, as many had demanded. The Duma will instead attach some of its experts to Klebanov’s own government committee. That was clearly the outcome most desired by the government, but it led one Yabloko lawmaker to complain that it is impossible to rely on Klebanov’s commission to make an “honest and unbiased analysis” of what factors had doomed the Kursk (Izvestia, BBC, Reuters, Itar-Tass, Russian Public TV, September 15; Washington Post, September 16).