Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 103

Some nine months after the still-unexplained loss of the nuclear powered submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea, Russian government officials continue to mismanage the tragedy. Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, were roundly criticized in the wake of the Kursk’s August 12 demise for the incompetent and tendentious manner in which they reacted to the crisis. Now, Moscow has contracted with a Dutch company to undertake a difficult and risky operation to raise the vessel. Presumably to make up for their feckless performance last August, Russian officials pledged on May 25 to ensure that the upcoming salvage operation is a model of transparency and multimedia openness. Unfortunately, the very manner in which Moscow finalized the Kursk recovery contract suggests that this will be anything but the case.

On May 18 Russian authorities shocked observers and raised new questions about Moscow’s motivations when they signed a contract to salvage the Kursk with the Dutch heavy transport firm Mammoet. The signing announcement came only a day after Russian negotiators had unexpectedly broken off months of negotiations with a consortium of the Norwegian branch of U.S.-based Halliburton and the Dutch companies Heerema Marine Contractors and Smit Tak. The sudden Russian switch was a surprise not only because Moscow had worked extensively with the consortium on the salvage plan, but also because the companies making up the consortium are international leaders in underwater salvage and had detailed knowledge of the Kursk. Mammoet, by contrast, has experience in heavy lifting assignments but has never attempted to raise anything as heavy as the 20,000-ton Kursk from the seabed.

Russian authorities attributed the switch in part to deadlines. Perhaps because Putin promised last year to raise the Kursk in 2001, the Kremlin reportedly insisted that the consortium complete the job this year. Moscow itself so prolonged the negotiations with the consortium, however, that planning was put hopelessly behind schedule and, in the end, consortium members had to insist the raising of the Kursk be put off until next year. Mammoet, on the other hand, has apparently agreed to complete the job this year, despite the fact that the company has come late to the project and that valuable weeks have already been lost. According to the current timetable, the first stage of the salvage operation will begin in July–when the Kursk’s torpedo section will be cut from the rest of the hull–while the remainder of the vessel will be raise and towed to port by late September.

Observers in Russia and elsewhere have questioned the need to raise the Kursk this year, however, and some have asked why the vessel needs to be raised at all. It has been suggested that the Kremlin’s sudden choice of Mammoet was based on other–and especially financial–considerations. According to some Russian reports, the Dutch and Norwegian consortium had insisted that Moscow pay a significant amount of the estimated US$70-80 million tab for the salvage operation up front–something that Moscow was loathe to do. Reports also suggested that Mammoet had agreed to do the job for a lot less than the consortium. An expert from the Norwegian-based Bellona Foundation accused Mammoet of taking the job mainly for publicity reasons, and said that they had lowered the price to US$50 million and agreed to a US$500 million liability plan. Russian negotiators and their counterparts from the consortium had reportedly been unable to reach an agreement on liability for the recovery operation. That this was true was suggested by reports last week that consortium partners may now actually contract with Mammoet to take part in the Kursk salvage operation, but not bear liability for the operation’s success and safety.

Money was at the root of another problem that reportedly led Moscow to pull out of the deal with the consortium. For the six months during which negotiations were ongoing between the two, there was talk that Western countries and Japan might kick in roughly half the total cost of raising the Kursk. A nonprofit organization called the Kursk Foundation was set up to raise this funding and oversee its disbursement. In the end, however, the foundation managed to raise almost nothing. More important, donor nations sought to link their contributions to a bigger effort aimed at cleaning up radioactive sites in Russia’s northern regions. Moscow balked at that condition, and has now apparently said that it will pay for the Kursk salvation operation itself.

There have, finally, been some insinuations that bribes may have been involved in the decision by Russian officials to award the salvage operation to Mammoet. The Russian publication Argumenty I Fakty alluded to an alleged commission fee of US$2.4 million having been paid by Mammoet. Other publications were more circumspect, but did mention what they suggested were increasingly close ties between the company and top Russian officials. Moscow’s credibility, and its alleged new eagerness to open the Kursk operation to media scrutiny, were hardly helped by the fact that Russian officials refused to divulge the financial figures contained in the contract with Mammoet.

Some Russian experts, meanwhile, sharply criticized the government for contracting Mammoet. Among the most outspoken was Yury Senatsky, a retired rear admiral who is a former chief of the Soviet navy’s rescue, salvage and vessel lifting operations. “Everything going on around the Kursk under the guidance of that governmental commission looks like the theater of the absurd,” he said. “There is simply no time to prepare, especially as some serious preparatory work, involving unique technical equipment, should be done.” Senatsky described the people now involved in planning the Kursk’s salvage as “dilettantes” who “never raised [small] boats from the seabed, much less atomic submarines.” More darkly, he suggested that the government’s plan to first cut away the mangled nose of the Kursk, and possibly to leave it on the ocean floor, might in fact be aimed at covering up the cause of the accident. He said that any evidence that might be discovered regarding what happened to the Kursk would likely be found on precisely this section of the sub (AFP, BBC, AP, Moscow Times, May 18; Washington Post, Izvestia, May 19; Argumenty I Fakty, no. 21, May; Chicago Tribune, May 22; Reuters, May 18, 23; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 19).

Against this background, comments by Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov on May 25 were anything but reassuring. Kuroyedov admitted that at least half of the torpedoes and all of the cruise missiles about the Kursk remain intact, and that it is possible there could be a detonation as the Kursk’s hull is raised. Indeed, the first part of the operation, in which the sub’s torpedo compartment is to be cut away, could have the same effect. Kuroyedov and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who heads the government commission investigating the Kursk disaster, also tried to play down concerns that the Kursk’s two nuclear reactors could leak radiation during the lifting. He pledged that the international community would be kept informed on a daily basis regarding radiation levels around the wreck. As part of the government’s openness policy, meanwhile, news related to the Kursk–and ultimately updates on the salvage operation itself–will be posted on a Kremlin-connected internet web site, at (AP, May 17; Moscow Times, May 28; Reuters, AFP, AP, May 25).