Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 190

Russian plans to recover the bodies of sailors lost in the Kursk disaster have moved forward in recent days, but uncertainty continues to dog the effort. The Regalia, a vessel normally used by the offshore oil industry, departed from a Norwegian port on October 8 en route to the site in the Barents Sea where the Russian submarine went down on August 12. The rig is carrying an eighty-member crew which includes eighteen divers–nine from Russia and nine from Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Norwegian reports said that the attempt to recover the remains will begin around October 18 and is expected to last about three weeks. The operation is being conducted by Russia’s Rubin military design bureau and the Norwegian subsidiary of the U.S.-based Halliburton oil service company. Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of the Russian navy, is in charge of the effort.

The Russian commander has himself cast some doubt upon the wisdom of the recovery mission, however. In comments to the Russian media made on October 9, Kuroyedov that there was “very little chance for the recovery” of bodies from the Kursk. He also described the mission as “extremely complex” in all aspects, and warned that “risks are very high.” He said that his main task is to “prevent the loss of any crew members.” Russian divers are expected to do the bulk of the work in the recovery effort and will apparently be the only divers allowed into the submarine itself.

Kuroyedov’s remarks may be just an attempt to lower expectations before the recovery mission starts. Aside from the risks to the divers, a host of Russian observers have warned that only a small number of bodies from the 118-man crew are likely to be recovered. All of them, moreover, will have suffered the ravages of two onboard explosions–the second of them believed to have been an especially powerful blast–and more than two months of being underwater. One Russian newspaper quoted military experts off the record as saying that divers will likely manage to recover only fifteen to twenty bodies from the Kursk.

But Kuroyedov’s remarks may also reflect a genuine reluctance by the Russian military leadership to undertake the recovery mission. According to one Russian newspaper account, for example, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev is said to have prepared a memorandum listing over twenty risk factors connected to the recovery effort. Meanwhile, a senior Russian naval officer with extensive experience in naval rescue operations has reportedly also called on the government to give up the idea of recovering the bodies right now. Like many others, he urged that it be left until next year, when the Russian government is expected to try to raise the Kursk submarine as a whole. In fact, a number of experts have warned that the upcoming recovery mission could ultimately complicate next year’s effort to raise the sub. They say that plans by the diving teams to cut eight holes in the hull of the vessel–to gain access to its interior–will weaken the structure of the Kursk and make later efforts to raise it both riskier and more difficult.

Against this background, and considering that even many of the families of the sailors lost on the Kursk have urged postponement of the recovery mission, the determination to proceed with the recovery operation appears more and more to be driven by President Vladimir Putin’s personal pledge to ensure that the bodies are recovered. Putin’s position on this score may be part of an attempt to recoup some of the political popularity that he lost through the Kremlin’s gross mishandling of the Kursk accident. Yet Putin’s seems to be a high-risk course. A mission which manages either to recover few bodies or, even worse, results in a new tragedy of some sort in the Barents Sea, will only compound the political problems faced by the Kremlin in connection with the Russian submarine disaster (AP, October 8; AFP, BBC, October 10; Izvestia, Novye Izvestia, October 11; Argumenty i Fakty, October).

Reports over the past few days, meanwhile, have suggested that the loss of the Kursk may be at least partly responsible for another embarrassment to the Kremlin and the Russian navy. On October 10 Kuroyedov apparently confirmed rumors that a much-ballyhooed plan by which the Russian navy was to dispatch a naval group to the Mediterranean Sea has been postponed “indefinitely.” The order to prepare for the Mediterranean mission was signed by Putin on March 4 and described the mission as an opportunity for “restoring Russia’s naval presence in the most important parts of the world’s seas.” It also ordered that the mission be undertaken “in order to support peacekeeping activities, fly Russia’s flag in the given region, and improve crew combat skills.” The August naval maneuvers in which the Kursk was lost represented the final training exercise for the Mediterranean mission, however. Although broader problems related to naval readiness probably explain the decision to cancel the mission, the loss of the Kursk is likely to have figured in the calculation. The collapse of the mission is an embarrassment both for Putin, who has embraced the navy with special fervor, and for the naval leadership, which has hoped to use Putin’s support to reestablish itself as a formidable presence on the world’s oceans (Russian agencies, March 10; Vremya novostei, October 11).