Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 141

As international media focused their attention this past weekend on the summit meeting of the Group of Seven countries and Russia in Genoa–an event at which Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to solidify Russia’s place among the world’s leading democracies–an effort many think is aimed at burnishing Putin’s own reputation in Russia was taking place more than a thousand miles to the north. On Sunday, divers working from the Norwegian support ship Mayo began cutting an opening into the hull of the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. This operation, which comes nearly a year after the tragic accident which killed all 118 Russian crew members on board, marks the opening phase in a costly, risky and unprecedented international salvage effort aimed at bringing the 18,000-ton vessel to the surface and, ultimately, towing it to the far northern Russian port city of Murmansk. In the weeks to come a team of Russian and foreign divers will attach steel cables to the Kursk’s hull, after which twenty-six hydraulic lifts anchored to a giant pontoon will lift the submarine from its current resting place, some 357 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea. Moscow has contracted the Dutch firm Mammoet, which has more experience in heavy lifting on land-based construction projects, to run the salvage operation. If successful, the recovery would clear the rich fishing waters of the area of a potentially devastating environmental hazard and be a feather in the cap of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin administration. Some observers in Russia and abroad have raised red flags about the operation, however, arguing that it has been hastily arranged, that it is being poorly overseen, and that, if mismanaged, it could create a far greater environmental threat to the region than the sunken sub itself now poses.

The Kremlin appears determined to use the salvage effort as an advertisement for what it is portraying as a new policy of openness. It has shipped dozens of journalists to the area in recent days, and has even opened an official web site––to keep the public informed of developments in the Barents Sea. Russia authorities have also set up a press center devoted to the Kursk operation at an unused ice-rink in Murmansk in what is being portrayed as a public show of openness. In domestic political terms, the demonstration of transparency is clearly aimed at repairing the damage done to the Kremlin by its gross mismanagement of the original Kursk disaster, and at demonstrating that this time the government will not engage in the sort of deceit and misinformation that so discredited it last August. Internationally, the seeming openness surrounding the current operation is aimed at showing that Russian authorities have abandoned the secretive ways of their Soviet predecessors in favor of a more Western-style approach to public relations.

The problem for the Kremlin is that, in Russia’s northern regions particularly, people remain deeply suspicious of the government’s motives, while interested parties abroad are likely to be put off by the obvious selectivity of the Kremlin’s openness. Indeed, a commentary in the English-language Moscow Times suggests that the Kremlin’s public relations campaign around the Kursk salvage operation shows the “deft touch” of Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the man who was earlier entrusted by Russian authorities to restrict and manipulate media access to the war in Chechnya. Some active service sailors and their families in Murmansk, meanwhile, are said to be deeply skeptical of the government’s statements about the salvage operation, and recent opinion polls suggest that many Russians believe the Kursk recovery may be intended more to salvage Putin’s reputation than to raise the sub or recover the bodies of the sailors still on it. In the embarrassing days that followed the Kursk’s demise Putin pledged that the government would raise the sub and recover the bodies, regardless of the cost. But one leading television journalist has declared that the money being spent on the recovery operation–estimated to be at least US$70 million–would be better spent on compensating the victims.