Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 180

More than a month after the tragedy in the Barents Sea which left 118 Russian submariners dead, confusion continues to plague government efforts to reach decisions on whether and how to mount separate operations aimed at recovering bodies and raising the vessel itself. The government’s indecision has been highlighted anew over the past several days, with the signing of a contract to mount the operation for recovering the bodies with one Norwegian firm being postponed only to be followed in short order by the approval of another contract–but this time apparently with an entirely different Norwegian company (AP, APN, September 27). The hasty change can only raise new questions about both the competency of the government commission overseeing the Kursk recovery efforts and the preparedness of the Russian-Norwegian diving team which will ultimately descend to the sunken submarine. The move to push ahead with recovering the bodies comes, moreover, amid increasing pressure in Russia to cancel the recovery mission altogether. Under such conditions there may yet be new twists and turns in the Kremlin’s approach to dealing with the Kursk.

There have been a fair number of twists and turns already. On September 22 the St. Petersburg-based Rubin maritime technological design bureau, which built the Kursk and is overseeing the recovery operations, was to have signed a contract to recover the bodies with Stolt Offshore. That is the Norwegian firm whose divers took part in the original rescue mission to the Kursk. But negotiations with Stolt faltered at the last minute, and there were reports that Moscow had again put the contract out for bid to other foreign firms. Then, on September 26, Russian agencies reported that the government commission investigating the Kursk disaster, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, had in fact reached a decision to authorize an agreement on the recovery of the bodies with a Norwegian firm. Suddenly, however, it was not clear either when the contract would be finalized or whether it would go to Stolt (The Norway Post, September 19; Itar-Tass, Russian Public TV, AP, September 22; Russian agencies, AFP, September 26).

According to reports published last week, the sticking point between the Rubin plant and Stolt Offshore was the cost of the operation. According to one report, Moscow was offering US$5-7 million for the operation to recover the bodies, while Stolt was insisting on considerably more (possibly as much as US$20-25 million) (Reuters, September 24).

Russian hesitations, however, seemed possibly to have been the result of factors other than a concern over pricing. Over the past two weeks there have been indications that political pressure on the Russian government to mount the body recovery operation is weakening. In the immediate aftermath of the Kursk tragedy, and amid the government’s gross mishandling of the accident, families of the lost sailors pressed hard for a quick recovery of the bodies. That pressure led Putin to pledge that the government would launch a recovery mission. Putin backed that decision up on September 19, when he reportedly gave official approval for the mission to go forward UPI, September 19; Vremya MN, September 20).

Even at that time, however, family members of the lost sailors were said to be looking anew at the considerable risks involved in the mission, and were coming around to accept the view that the sailors might be best left onboard the sunken Kursk. That view was corroborated more concretely yesterday, when it was reported that some eighty relatives of Kursk crewmen had addressed a letter to the Kremlin and top government officials. It urged the government not to mount the recovery mission this fall. Reports suggested that those favoring this view were growing increasingly concerned that a rescue effort mounted so late in the year could wind up being the cause of new fatalities at sea (AP, Reuters, September 20; Segodnya, September 21; Russian agencies, September 27).

Similar concerns have also been expressed by several leading naval officers, including current Northern Fleet commander Vyacheslav Popov and former Black Sea Fleet commander Eduard Baltin. They and others have argued that, in tragedies of this sort, it is traditional and honorable for the navy to leave those lost buried at sea. They have also pointed out the sad but undeniable fact that it will be virtually impossible in any case to recover all of the bodies on the Kursk–Baltin suggested at most twenty to thirty might be recovered–and that the rescue operation would only bring more pain to the sailors’ families and to Russian society. Those critical of the recovery mission have also pointed out that the operation involved–which would include cutting holes into the Kursk’s hull in order to gain access to its interior–would likely weaken the vessel structurally and further complicate any future effort to raise the submarine as a whole. Klebanov himself, moreover, appeared earlier to state quite clearly his own disinclination to mount a recovery operation. He was quoted on September 13 as urging the Russian government to “consider the expediency of raising the bodies” (NTV, Russia TV, September 15; Segodnya, September 14).

The failure after long negotiations to reach an agreement with Stolt on recovering the bodies led to a delay which some thought might in any event rule out the likelihood of mounting a recovery operation this year. It was pointed out, for example, that training for the Russian divers who are to conduct the operation with the Norwegian team was to have begun on September 16 and is now behind schedule. Underwater operations in the Barents Sea will only become more difficult and risky as the weeks pass, and it was unclear how deep into November the Norwegians might be willing to go before insisting on putting off the operation until next year (Segodnya, September 20). But those considerations seem no longer to be on the Russian government’s mind. In an appearance before the Russian Federation Council yesterday, Klebanov assured lawmakers that retrieval work would begin before October 10 and would be completed by the end of the month. He appeared also to suggest that the Russian divers would be carrying out an even greater portion of the recovery operation than had earlier been indicated (AP, Russian agencies, September 27).

In his appearance before the Federation Council, Klebanov had another surprise. He told lawmakers that the Rubin facility’s plan for next year’s effort to raise the Kursk submarine has now been rejected in favor of an alternative “Russian-Belgian” plan. The latter has the advantages, according to Klebanov, of being both technically simpler and cheaper. He provided no details (Russian agencies, September 27; Segodnya, September 28).

Klebanov’s assurances notwithstanding, it seems likely that next year will nevertheless only bring new and equally difficult decisions for the Russian government regarding the advisability and feasibility of raising the Kursk as a whole. Prior to Klebanov’s announcement yesterday, reports had suggested that the operation would go forward sometime next summer and that the costs would be considerable–more than US$50 million, according to one estimate (UPI, September 19). In this debate, however, Klebanov is apparently strongly on the side of those who are urging that the Kursk be raised. The Russian minister has reportedly argued that this is the only way that Moscow can allay fears–expressed most forcefully by environmental groups–of a possible radiation leak from the severely damaged vessel. Some Russian authorities are thought also to want the opportunity to conduct a more thorough investigation into the reasons why the Kursk was lost (BBC, September 19). On the other hand, Russia’s atomic energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, has argued against trying to raise the vessel. He and some other Russian experts contend that the Kursk’s reactors shut down automatically at the time of the accident, eliminating the threat to the environment. “From the point of view of the nuclear reactors, of nuclear safety, absolutely nothing justifies raising” the sub, Adamov said on September 12. He suggested that trying to raise the Kursk would only increase the chances of a radiation leak (AFP, September 12; UPI, September 13).

Answers to some of the many questions unanswered by the government with regard to its plans for the Kursk may be provided this weekend, when the contract with the still-unnamed Norwegian company is scheduled to be signed (AP, September 27). Developments to date, however, generate little confidence in the Russian government’s ability to make sound decisions or to pursue sensible policies in its efforts to deal with the consequences of the Kursk disaster. Under such conditions, those watching the Kremlin can only hope that its actions do not generate new tragedies in the Barents Sea, either through an over-hasty effort to recover the bodies of Kursk crewmen, or in conducting the technologically demanding job of trying to raise the vessel itself.