Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 161

After days of being pummeled by the Russian media for the confusion and secretiveness which characterized its efforts to deal with the Kursk submarine tragedy, the Russian government moved this week to plan the recovery of the sub’s lost crew and produced … more confusion and secretiveness. A governmental commission convened in St. Petersburg on August 29 both to look anew at the possible causes of the Kursk disaster and to advance plans for the recovery of crew members and, ultimately, to raise the submarine itself.

The commission, which is headed by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, produced little in the way of clarity, however, at least in its public statements. Klebanov announced that the commission had eliminated all but three of twelve scenarios it had been considering as possible explanations for the accident which downed the Kursk. But he refused to make public what those three remaining scenarios are.

Klebanov was more specific with regard to the recovery operation which, if approved by President Vladimir Putin, is to be launched for the crew of the Kursk. He said it would begin in late September, and would be carried out by lowering three diving bells to the wreck, which lies on the floor of the Barents Sea some 350 feet beneath the surface. Three divers–two Russian and one Norwegian–would man each bell, he said. They will cut six holes in the side of the Kursk, in six sections, to allow the divers access to the sub. The front of the submarine, which suffered considerable destruction in the August 12 accident, is to be cut off altogether. Klebanov estimated the cost of the operation at from US$5-7 million. He also made it clear that only the Russian divers would actually go into the Kursk. On the subject of raising the submarine, Klebanov suggested it would occur next year and would be carried out by Russia alone, with no foreign partners. He estimated the cost of raising the Kursk at US$100 million, and said that the operation would be funded both out of the Russian budget and by unspecified private and international funding. The Rubin Design Bureau, which built the Kursk, will apparently oversee the sub recovery operation (AP, Reuters, August 29; Vedomosti, August 30).

However, one of the problems with the Russian government commission plan–or at least with that part of the plan dealing with the recovery of the Kursk crew–lay in the fact that it was apparently devised without any consultation with the Norwegians. As the BBC reported, officials from Stolt Offshore, the Norwegian company whose divers successfully opened the hatch of the Kursk after a Russian rescue had failed to do so, were said to have greeted Klebanov’s August 29 remarks with incredulity. They told the BBC that, though they were still in negotiations with the Russian Navy, they in fact were not expecting their divers to work in the Arctic waters of the Barents before next summer. They seemed also to be assuming that they would be involved at that time in raising the Kursk and to be unaware of Klebanov’s assertion that Moscow is planning to undertake that operation on its own (BBC, August 29; AFP, August 30).

Of perhaps greatest interest, however, was Klebanov’s August 29 dismissal of U.S. reports that U.S. intelligence experts have concluded that a torpedo blast was responsible for the sinking of the Kursk. Indeed, the one piece of information Klebanov revealed regarding the government commission’s thoughts on the subject was that it had rejected this particular scenario. Klebanov also rejected speculation related to the torpedo theory, though apparently not necessarily a part of the American conclusion, that there was a new untested torpedo aboard the Kursk which might have been responsible for the disaster. He declared that there “were no new torpedoes onboard the Kursk,” and said that the torpedo “to be fired during the exercise was one of a type used in the Navy for over twenty years now” (AP, August 29; Vedomosti, August 30).

Klebanov’s remarks follow the publication of reports in the West indicating that intelligence picked up by two U.S. subs and a surveillance ship in the Barents at the time of the Kursk disaster had convinced U.S. experts of the probability that a torpedo explosion was responsible for the Kursk’s demise. Based in part on sonar tapes and other recordings dropped off in Norway six days after the accident by the U.S. submarine Memphis, the U.S. experts concluded that a rocket-propelled torpedo being loaded or launched as part of an exercise had misfired, leading to an explosion of its engine or fuel. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, a second and more powerful explosion occurred, which the U.S. experts concluded was probably caused by the denotation of the torpedo’s warhead. They believe that the second explosion tore a gaping hole in the submarine’s bow and killed most if not all of the crew instantly (New York Times, August 29).

The conclusions drawn by U.S. intelligence tally with those of the Norwegian vessels which were also in the area when the Kursk went down. What officials from both countries have made clear is that sonar recordings provide no evidence to support the notion that the Kursk was first involved in a collision with another vessel–Western or Russian–prior to the second, larger explosion which sent it to the sea bottom. Klebanov’s silence on the subject this week notwithstanding, that appears still to be the primary theory on which Russian government and military officials are basing their own investigations into the disaster.

That official line has been contradicted by some independent observers in Russia, however. This week, for example, Sergei Zhekov, chairman of the Maritime Region’s Duma and himself a former submarine crewman, said that his own investigation had convinced him that a collision between the Kursk and a Russian surface vessel was responsible for a torpedo explosion and the destruction of the Kursk (Komsomolskaya pravda, August 30). Another Russian newspaper, meanwhile, has speculated that the Kursk was actually the victim of a Russian antisubmarine missile mistakenly fired at it by a Russian naval vessel during the Northern Fleet’s maneuvers (Moskovskie vedomosti, August 28-September 3). To date there has been little additional support for that view.

In the meantime, however, the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into the sinking of the Kursk. The office is reportedly working on the basis of a belief that the accident was caused by a “violation of safety rules in maintaining and operating… vessels.” It is not clear where this investigation can lead, but some commentators have suggested that it rules out an accident caused by a foreign vessel and that prosecutors could ultimately conclude that the Kursk crew itself was responsible for the tragedy. The article of the criminal code reportedly being applied to the case imposes a penalty of up to ten years in prison a person or persons found guilty of violating the safety rules of maintaining and operating vessels (Moscow Times, August 26).