Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 225

More than three months after the disaster which sank the submarine Kursk, and in the wake of a recent recovery mission which brought to the surface only twelve of the vessel’s 118-man crew, Russian government and military authorities appear still to be a long way from resolving key issues related to the tragedy. With regard to the possible causes of the accident, however, this lack of clarity has only fueled continued intrigue, rumormongering and demonstrations of suspicion toward the West. With regard to plans to raise the Kursk, Russian efforts have proven only marginally more effective. A foundation has been set up both to look at various salvage proposals and to raise a large portion of the huge amount of money which will be needed for the operation.

Russian authorities investigating the Kursk disaster have turned most recently to fragments recovered from the sub during the October mission to recover bodies, as well as to what are reported to be 150 videotapes filmed by the Russian research vessel Academician Mstislav Keldysh. Reports out of Russia suggest that experts at the Rubin military design bureau, which developed the Kursk, are currently focusing their attention on one 15-meter by 2-meter fragment of the Kursk’s outer hull. The piece, one part of some sixty tons of metal brought up from the seabed to the Rubin, reportedly comes from a portion of the hull bearing a long dent caused, according to Russian sources, by an unidentified object. Given the location of the recovered fragment, Russian experts are said to have concluded that the dent could not have been made “due an unsuccessful mooring maneuver,” but rather that the sub had to have been “hit from above.”

While Russian sources drew no direct conclusion from this particular piece of evidence, it seems likely that it will ultimately be interpreted to support the view that the Kursk went down as the result of a collision with a foreign sub. That, from the beginning, has been the preferred explanation of the Russian naval leadership, which has charged that one of three vessels in the area of the Kursk at the time of the accident–two U.S. subs and one British–precipitated the explosions which ripped apart the sub’s forward compartment. Senior naval officials repeated that charge last month when they claimed that signals recorded by Russian naval surveillance vessels at the time of the Kursk disaster have been determined to be SOS signals from a foreign submarine.

The commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, referred to the alleged signals in telling a Russian newspaper that there is growing evidence that the Kursk sank after a collision with a foreign vessel. While Popov was an early advocate of this so-called “collision” theory, that has not been so true of Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the man who is heading a government commission investigating the disaster. In the wake of the discovery of the alleged SOS signals, however, Klebanov also lined up behind the collision hypothesis. He described the SOS signals as a “mechanical signal which, according to all the evidence, was not sent by the people on board the submarine, the Kursk” (AP, November 19; AFP, November 20; Reuters, November 21).

Interestingly enough, Popov and Klebanov made their statements only days before a group of retired senior Russian naval officers came to quite different conclusions. At a Moscow seminar, two former submarine commanders–one of whom had commanded a Kursk type sub and other of whom had actually once commanded the Kursk–said categorically that the Kursk could not have been sunk by a collision with another submarine. And another Russian naval officer, former Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Eduard Baltin, said that while there could have been such a collision, “it wouldn’t have had such tragic consequences.” He said that a crash probably would have dented the submarine’s outer hull, but would not have crippled the vessel. The former officers suggested that a combination of several external and internal factors were likely at the root of the Kursk disaster. Interestingly enough, however, they refused to elaborate on their conclusions out of fear, they said, that they might face prosecution by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on the grounds that they had revealed classified information (AP, November 23; AFP, November 24).

The naval commanders’ caution is presumably related to a series of treason or espionage charges that the FSB–the main successor organization to the KGB and an agency once directed by Vladimir Putin–had lodged against Russian nuclear researchers and others. But it may also have been related to a bizarre development in which FSB agents apparently moved twice over a one-week period to search the offices of the Russian newspaper Versiya. FSB agents reportedly interviewed the newspaper’s editor and one of its reporters; they also seized at least one computer and a host of documents. The reason for the investigation was said to be the fact that Versiya had earlier published a photograph of a U.S. Los Angeles type submarine undergoing repairs at a Norwegian naval base. Versiya claimed that the vessel might have limped into port following a collision with the Kursk on August 12. There was initially some question as to whether the photograph might actually have been several years old, but that appears not to be the case. What remains unclear is how Versiya came up with the photo, which Norwegian authorities said was probably a Russian satellite intelligence photograph. Norwegian authorities also insisted that the USS Memphis, which had docked at the port of Bergen following the Kursk accident, had made only a routine call, one which had been scheduled months earlier, and that it showed no sign of damage (Versiya, November 14-20; AFP, November 18, 20).

Continuing Russian suspicion of the West over the Kursk sinking, meanwhile, was highlighted anew last month when Norwegian seismologists reported having detected a number of small explosions in the Barents Sea near the Kursk accident site. Russian naval authorities confirmed that they were responsible for the blasts, which apparently have continued for much of the time since the Kursk went down. Observers attributed the explosions to an effort by Russian naval authorities to ensure that Western submarines stay well clear of the Kursk. The Russian actions prompted a NATO official to assure Moscow that it has no reason to fear underwater snooping by Western vessels (Norway Post, AP, November 15; Reuters, Izvestia, November 17).

Against this background, the Russian government has launched a drive to gain Western financial backing for a proposed effort to raise the Kursk next summer. An organization–the Kursk Foundation–has been established in The Hague under the chairmanship of a former Dutch and a former Russian foreign minister. Its goal is to raise from Western donors approximately US$40 million, which is half of what international planners believe is likely to be the cost for raising the Kursk. Foundation officials quoted by news agencies have expressed optimism that the US$40 million figure is reachable, but at least one Russian daily has taken a very contrary view. The newspaper says that European governments appear to be shocked over what is being seen as Moscow’s rather arrogant expectation that they will simply ante up the required millions. The newspaper quotes a German daily asking why the Russians are so quick to turn to the West for help now when they were so slow about doing it at the time of the disaster (Reuters, November 22; AP, Vremya novostei, December 1).