Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 72

The Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which still lies on the bottom of the Barents Sea, was unexpectedly back in the headlines last week following the publication of reports alleging that the vessel had been carrying nuclear weapons at the time of its demise this past August. The reports, which led Norway to seek an official explanation from Moscow, were quickly denied by the Russian government. But the seriousness with which Norway took the allegations, not to mention the wide dissemination they received in the Russian and Western press, only underscored anew the Russian government’s continuing lack of credibility with respect to the Kursk tragedy. That lack of credibility stems from Moscow’s initial ineptitude and dishonesty both in its handling of the August accident and in its communications to the public on the subject. It is probably also a result not so much of the government’s enduring inability to determine the cause of the Kursk’s demise–that may never be known with any certitude–but of its earlier willingness to politicize and further emotionalize the issue by repeatedly making reference to the alleged culpability of Western submarines in the accident.

A report broadcast by the independent Norwegian station TV-2 on April 4 triggered last week’s exchange between Russia and Norway over the Kursk’s armament at the time of its demise. The Norwegian station quoted Russian lawmaker Grigory Tomchin, who sits on a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the August accident, as having answered in the affirmative when asked if the Kursk had nuclear weapons on board. Tomchin reportedly also told TV-2 that this “has been known for a long time,” and expressed frustration over the secrecy with which the Russian military had kept the accident shrouded. Tomchin’s remarks appeared to receive some corroboration from Harald Ramfjord, a Norwegian engineer who has played an important role in planning the proposed salvage operation. Ramfjord, who is employed by the company Global Tool Management, told TV-2 that he had also seen evidence that the Kursk had been carrying nuclear missiles. “One of the documents I had access to indicated that there were two atomic missiles aboard the vessel,” he told the television station. He added that the Russian documents were stamped “secret.” TV-2 reported that the missiles aboard the Kursk were SS-N-19 (a NATO designation) cruise missiles carrying 500 kiloton warheads.

In the wake of the August accident the Russian government had given assurances to Norway that the Kursk, which was on naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea, had been carrying only conventional weapons at the time of its demise. But Russian authorities apparently misled the Norwegians on a number of points in the days and weeks following the accident, and that lack of credibility appears to have contributed to Oslo’s alarm over last week’s reports. Indeed, Norwegian Rear Admiral Einar Skorgen, who led last year’s efforts by Norwegian divers to find survivors in the Kursk, said that Moscow had provided a string of misleading information about the sunken submarine. With respect to the TV-2 reports, he indicated that the presence of nuclear missiles on the Kursk could greatly complicate Moscow’s current efforts to raise the submarine. In separate comments which confirmed Skorgen’s conclusion, Harald Ramfjord told reporters that “if Russia does not guarantee that the Kursk does not have nuclear missiles” then his company would not take part in the project to raise the sub.

Against this background, Russian officialdom was quick to deny the TV-2 allegations and to offer assurances to Oslo that the Kursk was armed only with conventional weaponry. Igor Dyagalo, an aide to the commander of Russia’s navy, said to reporters on April 5: “I categorically deny this information. From the first day of the catastrophe we said that there were no nuclear weapons on board the nuclear submarine Kursk.” Dyagalo also disparaged Tomchin’s remarks, saying that the Russian lawmaker’s claims “were linked to his personal analysis and personal fantasy.” Tomchin, meanwhile, distanced himself from the remarks which TV-2 had attributed to him. He suggested to reporters that his responses to the television station’s questions had been misunderstand and that he had in fact indicated only that the Kursk was capable of carrying nuclear weapons–not that it had been carrying them. The Russian denials, which were also offered during a meeting in Moscow between Norway’s charge d’affaires and a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, apparently satisfied the Norwegian side. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Oslo confirmed that the Russian side had provided reassurances and said that “as of now we are satisfied with that response.” The Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which has drawn the wrath of the Russian naval command for its determined investigations into the navy’s handling of nuclear wastes, reacted similarly. An article posted on its web site indicated that the organization had no reason to believe the TV-2 report to be true.

The issue may nevertheless not be entirely closed, because Moscow still needs Western and financial and technical help to carry out a project aimed at raising the Kursk, and mutual trust will be important if that project is to be finalized and successfully implemented. But in this area, too, Moscow’s track record has not always been encouraging. Russian authorities were erratic in their planning of autumn mission to recover bodies from the Kursk, and some in Moscow suggested that the operation had in fact been conducted less to locate the bodies–which was something Russian President Vladimir Putin had publicly promised–than to find evidence linking a NATO sub to the accident.

In remarks to reporters made yesterday, Russian State Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev said that the Russian government had released the necessary funds to ensure that the effort to raise the Kursk will go forward late this summer or early in the autumn (Russian agencies, April 11). But given the performance to date of the Russian government in matters related to the Kursk, it will be a surprise if preparations for the salvage mission do really go forward without encountering new problems. Indeed, over the past month reports have appeared suggesting a failure by Moscow to fully meet its financial commitments in a fund-raising effort being led by the Kursk Foundation. The Foundation is a Belgium-based international organization trying to help Moscow acquire the US$70 million reportedly necessary to raise the Kursk. Current plans call for the use of cranes to raise the 14,000-ton sub, which is then to be towed by a giant barge to the Russian port of Murmansk. Experts had warned last month that if preparations for the months-long project do not begin soon, the work will likely not be completed by the time autumn storms set in on the Barents Sea and make salvage operation impossible (Reuters, AP, April 4-5; BBC, Bellona Foundation, April 4; The Guardian, AFP, Norway Post, April 5; Novye Izvestia, April 6; AP, March 10, 23).