Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 211

A Russian-sponsored mission to recover the bodies of the submarine Kursk’s doomed 118-man crew ended this week, having produced few bodies but having yielded what Russian officials say is new evidence that the Russian Oscar class submarine was downed by a collision with a foreign sub. The mission to recover the bodies, which Russian and Norwegian divers undertook off the Norwegian seagoing platform Regalia, was finally called off on November 7. That decision, officials said, was based both on worsening weather in the Barents Sea–where the Kursk went down on August 18–and on the increasing risks divers faced in trying to negotiate through interior of the mangled submarine (Reuters, November 7-8; Washington Post, November 8). The conclusion of the recovery mission was followed on November 8 by a meeting of the Russian government commission, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. The commission discussed the causes of the Kursk’s demise, based on the new evidence presented by the recovery mission, and looked at what Russian officials say is a plan to raise the Kursk in its entirety sometime next year.

To date, Klebanov has been noncommittal about the accident which caused the sinking of the Kursk. Despite the insistence of naval leaders that the Kursk had been doomed by a collision with a Western sub, Klebanov continued to say that the commission was officially considering three possible scenarios for the Kursk’s demise: collision with another vessel, an internal explosion and contact with a World War II floating mine.

Following the November 8 meeting, however, Klebanov said that, though the other two scenarios remain under consideration, “serious visual evidence” now points most convincingly to the idea that an underwater collision–presumably with a foreign sub–caused the Kursk disaster. “We found a large dent in the boat’s [front] two sections… and some very serious scratches, which tell us that something scraped against the boat after the collision,” Klebanov told reporters. He nevertheless said that the commission’s findings did not constitute a “final explanation,” and suggested that authorities would not make an official determination until the sub is raised next year. Klebanov thus moved closer to Russia’s naval commander in chief, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, who said last week that he was “80 percent” convinced that two explosions aboard the Kursk–monitored by U.S. and Norwegian listening devices–followed a collision with a U.S. or British submarine. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, meanwhile, attended the commission meeting on November 8 (the first time he has participated in the commission’s work) and vowed that, if a foreign sub had indeed collided with the Kursk, the culprit would be identified. Washington and London continue to deny that their submarines had anything to do with the Kursk accident (BBC, Russian agencies, November 8; Reuters, November 7).

As numerous Russian commentaries have pointed out, both the Russian naval command and the government have a vested interest in claiming that the Kursk went down because of a collision with a foreign sub. For the Russian naval command (and military leaders more generally), that explanation would deflect charges that the sub’s demise had been related in one or way another to poor naval planning, the unpreparedness of the Kursk’s crew or an ill-advised attempt to test a new and dangerous torpedo during the military exercise in which the Kursk went down. Official embrace of the collision theory would likewise relieve Russian defense industry leaders of the charge that they had handed over inferior technology to the Russian navy.

That last consideration is presumably of some importance to Klebanov himself, who oversees issues related to defense industrial production within the Russian cabinet. His name may also have been implicated in charges–raised in the immediate aftermath of the August 12 Kursk accident–that Russian defense industrial officials had overruled the objections of naval commanders and forced the Kursk to take a new and potentially dangerous torpedo on board (see the Monitor, August 29). Klebanov is rumored to be a leading candidate for Russian defense minister in what many believe will soon be a Putin move to restructure and “civilianize” the post. Any implication that he might be at all involved in the tragedy would clearly undermine ambitions he might have for the defense ministry post.

The skepticism and suspicions which many Russians harbor regarding the government’s role in, and investigation of, the Kursk disaster were reflected in a recent commentary by a respected Russian military expert. Pavel Felgenhauer suggests that the Kursk recovery mission was from its inception intended less to find the bodies of dead Russian sailors–as President Vladimir Putin had promised–than to find evidence linking a NATO sub to the Kursk accident. Felgenhauer makes some of the arguments enumerated above. But he also suggests that a successful move to pin blame for the Kursk disaster on the West would have yet another benefit for Russian military and defense industrial leaders: It would raise tensions with the West and increase demands for more military spending and procurement. In fact, Felgenhauer goes on to say that the government’s actions in this respect reflect a broader divergence within the Russian political elite between those who favor reform and an accommodation with the West and those who instead prefer confrontation and would not mind seeing Russia reshaped in the image the Soviet Union (Moscow Times, November 9).

With the mission to recover bodies from the Kursk now a part of history, the Russian government will turn to a new task–that of raising the submarine itself. Russian observers are divided on whether the government is in fact as committed to this act as it professes to be. They point out that the operation will be hugely expensive and require Russia to turn to foreign partners for help. They also question whether the raising of the Kursk is even technically feasible. That issue is apparently complicated further by the fact that during the recent recovery mission divers cut holes in the Kursk’s hull. Some reports say that the location of the holes was designed to aid a future recovery effort; others suggest that the holes have weakened the vessel structurally and will make any effort to raise it more risky (BBC, November 8; Russian agencies, November 9).

The Russian effort to determine the cause of the Kursk’s demise, meanwhile, will also continue. Now that the Regalia has left the area around the Kursk another vessel–the Russian scientific research ship Akademik Keldysh–will return. Equipped with two Mir deep-sea submersibles, the Akademik will resume the search for physical evidence linking a NATO sub to the Kursk disaster (Russian Public TV, November 8).