Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 222

The plot thickened this past weekend in what some Russian news sources have suggested is an intensifying face-off between President Vladimir Putin and his military command. The Russian leader rocked naval leaders on Saturday (December 1) when he issued orders demoting the commander of the Northern Fleet and several of his most senior officers. Also either demoted or subjected to disciplinary actions were a number of senior officers serving in the naval command center in Moscow. Reports quibbled over whether the naval leaders had been punished for their role in the tragic loss of the Kursk nuclear submarine last August, or whether the president’s orders were the result of a more general breakdown of discipline and order in Russia’s most important naval grouping. In fact, the two appeared to be indistinguishable. Neither Putin nor Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who is conducting a criminal inquiry into the Kursk’s demise, linked the offending officers directly to the Kursk tragedy. But in a series of damning statements they charged that the Northern Fleet command had let discipline and order decline precipitously in the fleet. They also strongly suggested that these shortcomings had been a contributing factor in both the Kursk’s destruction and in the ineffective naval rescue efforts that followed the tragedy.

Russian reports suggested over the weekend that Putin’s sacking of Northern Fleet commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov and staff chief Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak had stunned the naval command–and perhaps the military leadership as a whole. The announcement of Putin’s disciplinary actions came after a meeting with Ustinov in which the Russian prosecutor general presented the results of a months-long investigation into the Kursk disaster and, more generally, the state of affairs in the Northern Fleet. Putin then met immediately with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin, and the Russian navy’s commander-in-chief, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov. Kvashnin and Kuroyedov were then dispatched immediately to the Northern Fleet headquarters, where they reportedly presented Putin’s decisions to the fleet’s commanders during a closed door meeting that lasted nearly three hours. Kvashnin and Kuroyedov then addressed the press, and reports said that they had difficulty hiding how upset they were. Indeed, Kvashnin reportedly insisted that the firings and other disciplinary actions were entirely unrelated to the Kursk investigation, though his assertions appeared to be undermined both by Putin’s own statements earlier and by evidence reportedly turned up during Ustinov’s investigation that the naval command had been guilty of the worst sorts of procedural violations in its preparations for the August 2000 naval exercises in which the Kursk was lost.

Putin launched his housecleaning of the Northern Fleet naval command despite the fact that Ustinov’s investigation had produced what Russian sources indicated was only a preliminary report on the circumstances surrounding the Kursk’s demise. Among other things, that appeared to indicate that political authorities in Moscow have yet to determine a definitive cause for the Kursk tragedy. In his remarks on Saturday, Putin said that investigators are still looking into all the versions that have been suggested to explain the Kursk’s loss. Officially, those include a possible collision with a World War II mine, an accident with one of the Kursk’s torpedoes or a collision with a foreign submarine. Putin made it clear that no definite conclusion had been reached on this score, but he appeared to go out of his way to suggest that the investigation had turned up little to suggest that a collision with a foreign submarine might have been the cause. That is significant because the naval high command–including both Kuroyedov and, especially, Motsak–have indicated in the past their belief that a foreign submarine is the culprit in the Kursk tragedy. Naval authorities would dearly like to avoid any accusations that their own negligence might be responsible for the Kursk’s loss (RTR, Vesti, Reuters, Strana.ru, December 1; Washington Post, December 2; The Independent, AFP, December 3).

Putin’s move against the naval command comes amid suggestions that he is clashing behind the scenes with the military leadership over a host of issues, including his recent turn toward a strategic partnership with the West and his efforts at home to implement a military reform plan that will both reduce and restructure the armed forces. The emergence of this complex of issues has led the Russian leader to meet on a number of occasions recently with the military high command, and the past few days have proven no different. Putin’s December 1 discussions with Defense Minister Ivanov and General Staff chief Kvashnin came only two days after the Russian president honored those who played an important role in the successful raising of the Kursk earlier this fall. And the Russian president is now scheduled to travel to Severodvinsk today, where he will attend a ceremony at which the government will present to the Northern Fleet a newly commissioned nuclear submarine, the Gepard (“cheetah”). The sub will be the most advanced in the Russian fleet (the Kursk previously held that honor), and Putin’s decision to attend the commissioning ceremony is presumably aimed at mending some wounds with a naval leadership that will no doubt still be smarting over the Kremlin’s weekend actions (Strana.ru, November 28, December 3).