Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 229

Investigation of the Kursk submarine disaster took an unexpected turn this week when Norwegian military officials said that Oslo had sent fighter jets to intercept Russian planes over the Barents Sea on August 17 and 18. The Russian aircraft, identified as Ilyushin-38 surveillance planes by the Norwegian F-16 pilots, were apparently dispatched by the Russian military command to check for the presence of a foreign submarine thought by Moscow to have been the reason for the tragic loss of the Kursk and its 118-man crew on August 12. The Norwegian military, which said that Russian surveillance planes had not been seen patrolling the area since 1996, apparently had concerns that the Ilyushin 17s might cross over into Norwegian air space. Among those providing information about the August 17-18 incident was Admiral Einar Skorgen. He told Norwegian journalist Oystein Bogen that he called Russian Northern Fleet commander Vyacheslav Popov for information about the Russian aircraft, and was told that they were looking for a submarine suspected of having been involved in the Kursk disaster.

This week’s revelations demonstrated how suspicious the Russian military command apparently had been–from the beginning–over the possibility that a foreign sub had been responsible for the Kursk’s demise. But perhaps even more significant is the manner in which Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and some other Russian commentators this week used Skorgen’s comments. According to the Moscow Times, Sergeev confirmed to reporters this week that Moscow had indeed sent the surveillance aircraft to the accident site last August, and asserted that Skorgen’s remarks had given further credence to the belief that a foreign sub (read: American or British) was responsible for the Kursk’s demise. This statement, the paper said, was picked up by NTV and RTR television, which said that Skorgen’s remarks constituted “further proof of the theory that the Kursk was sunk by a foreign submarine.”

The problem is that Skorgen never made the allegation. In fact, he pointedly denied that there was any truth to Moscow’s so-called “collision” theory, and went so far as to describe the Russian accusations as “propaganda for Russian internal use.” In addition, one Russian news agency apparently reported that Skorgen had also claimed that “there was something wrong” with the USS Memphis when it docked in the Norwegian port of Bergen after the Kursk sinking. According to Norwegian reporter Oystein Bogen, however, Skorgen never said any such thing. What Skorgen did say, according to Bergen, was that the Russians might have sincerely believed that a collision had caused the disaster (Moscow Times, Russia Journal, December 7; Reuters, December 6).

The apparent readiness of Russia’s defense minister and leading media outlets to distort facts relative to so emotive an issue as the Kursk disaster is a disturbing enough development in itself. But it also reflects what has long been a broader tendency of Russian officialdom, and the media which cover it, to provide one-sided and often tendentious or misleading reporting on a host of other important international issues. This sort of behavior was starkly evident during the clash between Russia and the West over the Yugoslav crisis, and it has also reared its head in media treatment of such issues as the spy trial of retired U.S. naval officer Edmond Pope. Reporting and official commentary of this sort is not merely a domestic political issue within Russia, however. It has also tended to stoke popular anti-Western sentiment in Russia, and helped empower those Russian political actors whose programs define Russian national interests in terms of confrontation with the West.