Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 159

The days which have followed the downing of the Kursk submarine have been filled with unanswered questions, but none so basic or so important as what actually caused the tragedy which cost 118 Russian sailors their lives. Even under the most ordinary of circumstances, it would probably have been difficult to determine, with any certainty, the cause of an accident as grave and sudden as the Kursk’s. The task appears to have been made doubly difficult in Russia, however. It is true, on the one hand, due to the general deterioration of all aspects of Russia’s naval capabilities and the possibilities that these many deficiencies have opened with regard to the accident. But at least as important is the sad fact that the quest for answers to the Kursk tragedy has quickly become tainted by apparent misinformation, innuendo and the seeming efforts by some involved groups to use the accident either for political gain or to avoid political embarrassment. With no resolution to the question of cause in sight, and given the importance which the accident has assumed in Russian political and military life, it seems likely that these sorts of complications will only deepen as investigations into the cause of the tragedy unfold in the days and weeks to come.

A wide array of explanations for the August 13 Kursk accident have already been offered in Russia and abroad. The Russian Defense Ministry, along with a number of groups in Russia, continues to insist that the most likely cause was a collision between the Kursk and a foreign–read American or British–submarine. Indeed, in the days immediately following the accident one reputable Russian newspaper quoted sources at Russia’s Northern Fleet as claiming to have evidence that it was a British submarine which had crippled the Kursk. The account was filled with a host of other details, all pointing to an alleged British effort to cover up its role in the tragedy. It even included the claim that British offers of assistance to the Kursk were in fact intended to give British submariners a chance to eliminate evidence of the British sub’s presence near the Kursk accident site (Segodnya, August 19).

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, on the other hand, has tended in various public comments to implicate the United States in the accident, though he has also said that the Defense Ministry is investigating ten different possible scenarios to explain the Kursk tragedy. Sergeev has cited no evidence to back up the accusations he has leveled at the U.S. Navy, other than to refer to what he says have been eleven accidents involving Russian and foreign submarines over the past thirty years–all but one, he says, involving U.S. subs (BBC, August 25). The suspicions voiced in Russia that a U.S. vessel was involved were strong enough, however, that U.S. Defense Secretary felt compelled on August 21 to state publicly that there “were no American ships involved” in the tragedy. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has admitted that two U.S. submarines were in region where the Kursk went down, but has denied that they were involved in the accident in any way (BBC, August 22).

There are obvious political reasons why Sergeev and others in the defense establishment would find it advantageous to pin blame for the Kursk accident on a Western navy. Most important, it would absolve them of some of the responsibility for the loss of the Kursk, and would simultaneously deflect some of the public attention away from the manner in which the Defense Ministry first misrepresented the circumstances surrounding the accident itself and then mishandled the rescue attempt. Western involvement would also dovetail with longstanding efforts by the military leadership to continue portraying the United States and NATO as key security threats to Russia and thus to provide justification for greater military spending and increased efforts to rebuild Russian military might.

Given the evidence available at present, however, there seems little real reason to point the finger at the West and, indeed, even many influential voices in Russia are pointing instead to various other explanations for the Kursk accident. The one-time commander of the Black Sea Fleet, for example, the hardline Admiral Eduard Baltin, was quoted last week as charging that the Kursk accident was the result of Russian incompetence, bad planning and bad training. Baltin was among those who have suggested that the Kursk had collided with the seabed during a maneuver, causing tanks of pressurized air inside the submarine to explode or otherwise to trigger a larger explosion. “The Kursk is designed for the ocean, not for shallow waters,” he was quoted as saying. “Where it was maneuvering and where it perished is completely wild–strong currents and strong winds. You can’t carry out torpedo firing there” (BBC, August 22).