Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 189

The Russian government’s expensive and controversial plan to raise the nuclear submarine Kursk came to a successful conclusion last week when an international consortium lifted the 18,000-ton vessel with surprising speed and ease from its 100-meter-deep grave on the floor of the Barents Sea. The unprecedented lifting operation came after nearly a month of technical and weather delays that had led many experts to intensify their earlier criticism of the salvage plan. But Mammoet and Smit International, the two Dutch companies primarily involved in the lifting operation, required only seven hours on October 8 to lift the sub via twenty-six cables that had been attached to the Kursk earlier and then to secure it beneath the Dutch Giant-4 salvage barge. The barge took approximately two days to carry the stricken vessel past the Russian Northern Fleet’s main base in Severomorsk–where residents reportedly thronged the embankment and navy ships sounded their sirens–to a dock at the Roslyakovo ship repair plant just a few miles north of Murmansk.

The Kursk, one of Russia’s most modern submarines, was lost on August 12 of last year in a tragedy that has yet to be explained. The submarine was carrying two 190-megawatt nuclear reactors at the time of its demise, as well as twenty-two Granit missiles. All 118 of its crew members were lost. The disaster and the government’s mismanagement of a subsequent rescue effort shocked the Russian nation while also discrediting the navy and causing some political problems for President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, it was Putin’s vow at the time to raise the Kursk and thereby to recover the bodies of the lost seamen that served as one of the government’s primary arguments in favor of pursuing the US$130 million operation (roughly US$65 million for raising the vessel and another US$65 million for disposing of it). Government officials also spoke of the potential dangers posed by the Kursk’s two nuclear reactors to the waters of the Barents Sea and of their hopes that raising the vessel might help determine the cause of the Kursk’s demise. Indeed, in remarks made on October 10, Putin reportedly ordered his Defense Ministry to ensure that the first people to enter the Kursk are medical staff and officials from the federal prosecutor’s office. Everything will be done, he said, “to determine and make public the true causes of this tragedy.” Skeptics, however, have suggested that less savory motives–from protecting Russian naval and nuclear secrets to covering up the actual causes of the accident–might be the real reason for the Kremlin’s decision to undertake the risky and expensive salvage operation.

In any event, it remains unclear exactly when Russian investigators will be in a position to board the Kursk. Dutch engineers working for the salvage consortium reportedly ordered late last week that preparations for docking the Kursk, which involve the attachment of two giant pontoons to the vessel, be postponed for several days to permit them some additional time to study the docking procedure. One pontoon was attached on Saturday and work on the other did begin yesterday. But the delay reflected the fact that the salvage operators have apparently judged the docking procedure to be at least as complex and potentially risky as the earlier lifting operation itself. The giant pontoons are designed to lift the submarine more than twenty feet higher than it is now and to place the vessel in a floating dock that can be raised above sea level. Once this is accomplished, recovery personnel are expected first to begin removing both the remains of the crew and the two dozen cruise missiles that are currently sitting in firing tubes. According to Northern Fleet commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, the full dismantling of the submarine, which will also include the removal and disposal of its reactors, will take at least a year. Meanwhile, Russian citizens living in the area of the salvage have reportedly expressed fears that the docking or dismantling operation could go awry and that the sub’s nuclear reactors could pose a radioactive hazard. Some are also said to be less than confident in the government’s related safety assurances and in its preparations for possible emergency situations.

Suspicions that the government may be covering up information related to the Kursk’s demise or recovery have, moreover, been further stoked by descriptions of the secrecy that will surround the dismantlement operation. Popov, for example, told Russian television viewers rather unconvincingly that pictures of the Kursk’s damaged hull would not be shown on television because to do so would traumatize sailors. The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, meanwhile, reported that the submarine, once it is in dock, will be covered by a camouflage net. It says more generally that analysts have been left “with the impression that the Navy does not want outsiders to see any damage to the hull that does not support the official theory about the cause of the disaster.” Regardless of whether that assessment is accurate, the navy’s secrecy seems likely in the coming weeks to generate similar skepticism and, perhaps of greater importance, to taint any announcements that official sources might make about their investigation into the reasons for the Kursk’s demise (DPA, October 8, 11; AFP, October 8, 10, 14; AP, October 8, 10-11; Russia TV, October 9; Reuters, October 10; Moscow Times, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 11).