Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 195

The lost Russian submarine Kursk continued to grab headlines this week, as an operation to recover the bodies of the vessel’s crew generated fresh controversy and raised new questions about the government’s policies. Those skeptical of the recovery mission have posed two key points. One is whether it is really necessary to try to raise the bodies of the Kursk crew now, at a time when weather conditions on the Barents Sea are growing less hospitable to the recovery effort. A number of people in Russia, including both some top-ranking naval officers and family members of the lost crew, have argued that it would make more sense to postpone the recovery mission until at least spring, when there are hopes that the entire vessel might be raised. Against this background, a second point is whether the mission to recover the bodies may in fact be only–or in part–a cover for another more secret effort: a move by the Russian navy to gather information about the state of the Kursk and to try ensure that classified documents or other sensitive materials on the Kursk are safeguarded (Izvestia, October 19).

Indeed, according to one BBC report, the government’s erratic and in some ways odd pursuit of the rescue mission is raising suspicions among some of the navy families in Murmansk that authorities may be trying to hide something. Those suspicions, the report suggests, are not unlike the ones in the immediate aftermath of the Kursk’s sinking, when government confusion and deliberate misinformation left naval families (and the Russian public at large) distraught and bitter toward the government. “They need to make their minds up,” one Murmansk resident was quoted as saying. “What are they rescuing–sailors’ bodies or military secrets?” (BBC, October 18).

Several developments have given rise to such suspicions. One is the apparent determination of the Kremlin to pursue the recovery mission despite the advice of experts and the entreaties of some Kursk relatives that it would make more sense to put off the mission until next year. Recent statements by Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of the navy and the man who is overseeing the rescue effort, have strengthened the sense that something is not right. Kuroyedov yesterday said publicly that the rescue mission may be too dangerous and that he could still decide to terminate it. “If the analysis of the situation inside the submarine shows too high a risk for the divers, I will be forced to give the order to cancel the operation,” he said.

The timing of Kuroyedov’s statement–which marks the first time that a Russian official has suggested abandoning the bodies–has raised a few questions (BBC, Reuters, October 19). Observers wonder why it comes so late in the game, after the government has announced the transfer of funding to pay for the rescue mission, and as the rescue vessel settles in place at the Kursk site and the divers prepare to descend to the submarine. One take is that the Kremlin is forcing naval leaders to go through with the recovery mission despite their misgivings about its risks and likelihood of success. Kuroyedov’s remarks, this theory continues, are aimed at providing an excuse for the navy to cancel the mission without violating the Kremlin’s orders. They are also said to be providing the naval leadership with an excuse should the mission go forward and result in some sort of new tragedy (Segodnya, October 20).

Russian President Vladimir Putin, it should be recalled, pledged to carry out the recovery mission amid the outpouring of criticism directed at the Kremlin and the military leadership in the immediate aftermath of the Kursk disaster. He appears not to have abandoned that pledge despite the apparent shift in opinion of many of those who had earlier demanded that the bodies be recovered. As a result, one Russian daily noted, a situation is developing around the Kursk much like the one immediately following the loss of the sub itself. It says that now, as in August, the Russian military leadership has launched a “rescue” mission in the Barents, and that now, as then, it is offering cautious statements about the chances for success. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin is, as he was, away from the action and vacationing in Sochi (Segodnya, October 20).

The sense that government policy toward the Kursk may involve some impropriety was probably fed further yesterday by the news that a member of the commission set up to compensate the families of Kursk crew members has resigned. Irina Lyachina, the wife of the commander of the wrecked submarine, said that she was leaving the commission because it mismanaged funds received as contributions. The alleged transgressions involve sums that are small but not insignificant by Russian standards. Lyachina appeared to attribute the transgressions to the fact that the commission is dominated by officials from the Northern Fleet and the local government. Putin yesterday ordered an investigation into her allegations (AFP, BBC, October 19).