Racing against the onset of winter weather, salvage operators contracted by the Russian government began final preparations yesterday for the difficult and potentially risky operation by which they hope to raise the lost Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. Yesterday’s resumption of the salvage operation came after various delays, caused by both technical problems and bad weather, which put the project behind schedule and left it increasingly vulnerable to the arrival of the sort of harsh Arctic weather conditions that would make recovery of the lost sub impossible for this year. The importance of this week’s final push was evidenced by the gathering of top Russian officials at the recovery site in the Barents Sea. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the man tasked with overseeing both the salvage operation and the investigation into how the Kursk was lost, arrived earlier this week on board the guided-missile battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great). He joined naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and Rubin Marine Design Bureau chief Igor Spassky, among others, at the recovery site. The Rubin Design Bureau built the Kursk, which at the time of its demise last August was among Russia’s newest and most modern nuclear submarines. The submarine disaster, in which all 118 crew members were killed, rocked the Russian government and embarrassed the navy while also shocking Russia’s civilian population.
While developments related to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and to Russia’s evolving role in the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition have dominated headlines over the past several weeks, the Kursk recovery mission nevertheless remains a high priority for the Russian government and a focus of intense interest for other countries in the region. The recovery is of special importance to President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin because of the Russian president’s initial mishandling of the tragedy and his subsequent vow to recover the bodies of those crewmen lost on the Kursk. Twelve bodies were in fact brought back to Russia during a smaller recovery mission last November. But given the obvious risks involved in the recovery operations, public sentiment in Russia appeared even by the time of that earlier mission to have turned against the idea of salvaging the Kursk and returning the remaining crewmen to the surface.
Against that background, there has been more than a little speculation in Russia and elsewhere that the current, more ambitious effort to raise the Kursk is, in fact, motivated less by the Kremlin’s desire to honor Putin’s earlier pledge than by the navy’s determination to protect sensitive military technologies on board the submarine. In addition, more than a few observers have suggested that the salvage mission may in fact reflect more than anything else a desire by the Kremlin to cover up evidence that might determine the reasons for the Kursk’s tragic demise. That speculation has intensified since Russian authorities made a decision–one that has since been realized–to lop off the front end of the Kursk before raising the rest of the vessel to the surface. The front end of the sub is most likely to yield clues regarding the events that led to the Kursk’s sinking. Russian officials have indicated their intention to return to the site of the wreck next year in order to recover the bow section, but many believe this is unlikely to happen.
Against this background, controversy continues to swirl over the question of what caused the Kursk’s violent demise last August. The Russian navy initially charged that the Kursk had collided with a foreign submarine (either American or British) which was spying on the naval maneuvers in which the Kursk was taking part. And, despite denials from Washington and London and the failure of naval authorities to produce any hard evidence in support of the theory, military leaders and a host of civilian observers have continued to push this explanation. The investigating commission which was formed under Klebanov’s leadership has been somewhat more even-handed, contending even up to the present that it was exploring three possible scenarios for the Kursk’s destruction: a collision with a foreign submarine, contact with a World War II mine or a malfunctioning torpedo. But though Western experts and many in Russia have pointed as the most likely explanation to that third scenario–or to similar ones in which a naval mishap was seen as the reason for the on-board explosions that doomed the Kursk–the Russian government appears in no hurry to squelch enduring rumors that blame a foreign sub for the accident. Indeed, the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru web site recently published a favorable commentary on a new study of the Kursk disaster which concludes that a foreign sub was indeed the culprit in the disaster. The book in question, which was written by a Captain Vladimir Shigin, was apparently provocative enough to trigger a scornful reply from a U.S. embassy spokesman in Moscow.
Critics of the Russian government’s salvage program, meanwhile, continue to warn of the risks involved in the current effort to raise the Kursk. The Norwegian-based environmentalist group Bellona, for example, has accused the Kremlin of failing to plan the recovery mission properly and of ignoring potential problems related to unexploded torpedoes and to the sub’s two nuclear reactors. Simultaneously, other observers, including some Russian military personnel, have raised red flags about the twenty-two Granit cruise missiles which are said to be aboard the sub. And personnel at the Russian naval shipyard tasked with dismantling the Kursk once (or if) it is successfully brought to the surface and towed to a dry dock near Murmansk, have indicated to reporters that they are still unsure how or if they will manage to carry out that task. The dismantling of nuclear subs, and in particular the extracting of their reactors, is typically carried out with the sub running and able to float. With the Kursk, however, these procedures will have to be carried out on a vessel already hoisted on a dry dock. Still other critics of the Kursk salvage plan, finally, have questioned both the need for raising the Kursk and the government’s rationale for doing so. Among other things, they have observed that the US$130 million price tag for the Kursk’s recovery amounts to almost twice the Navy’s budget for running its fleet of submarines. Under such circumstances the salvage mission is reportedly being viewed as almost a luxury.
But despite such complaints, the recovery mission will apparently go on. Divers working late on Monday required about twelve hours to attach two of the twenty-six grippers–or special fold-out anchors–that must be attached to holes cut earlier out of the sub’s hull. Salvage officials said that the pace of work should speed up with the onset this week of what is forecasted to be better weather, however, and they hoped to be able to raise the wreck and ship it to a dry dock near Murmansk by the end of the week. But they can probably afford no more delays or reversals at this stage of the game. When the salvage mission failed to get started until July of this year there were critics who warned that it would be difficult to raise the Kursk before the onset of winter conditions. The next week may show whether those warnings were justified (The Guardian, Strana.ru, September 17; Kursk141.org, September 26, October 1-2; Obshchaya Gazeta, September 27; Kommersant, September 28; Reuters, September 30, October 2; AP, October 1-2; AFP, Bellona.no, October 1-2).
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