Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 201

The operation to recover the bodies of crewmen from the lost Russian submarine Kursk, believed by many to have been undertaken by the Kremlin to make up for its mismanagement of the original disaster, appeared yesterday only have focused attention once again on the government’s earlier ineptitude and dishonesty. As reported widely yesterday, the body of one of the four crewmen thus far recovered by divers was found to bear a note. The message, written within a few hours after the submarine’s fatal plunge, made it clear that at least twenty-three members of the Kursk crew survived the initial pair of explosions which destroyed the ship. Lieutenant Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov, a recently married 27-year-old commander of the Kursk’s turbine team, wrote that he and twenty-two other crewmembers had gathered in the ninth section of the doomed sub. The terse message, apparently written over a 100-minute span, also said that several crewmembers had tried to escape the Kursk through an emergency shaft (International Herald Tribune, October 27; international agencies, October 26).

The repercussions of the unexpected discovery are not yet clear. On the one hand, Russian naval Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov’s decision to make public the substance of Kolesnikov’s message was said to have been greeted with gratitude and respect from Russian naval personnel. They reportedly believed that it would have been fully within Kuroyedov’s power to have declared the message classified and to have kept its discovery from the public (Segodnya, October 27). At the same time, the message obviously reflects badly upon the government and is a new reminder of the misinformation it provided about the Kursk disaster. Having delayed announcing to the public the fact that the Kursk had gone down, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov also claimed that the entire crew of 118 men had died instantly as a result of the accident. The Kolesnikov message shows that information to have been untrue. It also draws new scrutiny to the government’s failure either to launch an immediate rescue mission or–initially, when it might have made a difference–to accept the offers of help in this area from several foreign governments.

It remains unclear at this point whether the current recovery mission has–or will–shed any new light on the causes of the Kursk’s demise. Kuroyedov appears already to be convinced that it will prove that the Kursk did indeed go down as the result of a collision with an American or British submarine. That is the explanation for the disaster which the navy command has consistently favored. In remarks to the public on October 25, Kuroyedov claimed that he was now “80 percent sure” that such a collision doomed the Kursk, and that he “will make up the other 20 percent and will announce to the world who it was” (Reuters, October 25). Kuroyedov did not specify what new evidence he had seen to convince him of this, but it presumably is related to something found during the now nearly weeklong recovery mission.

A Russian lawmaker, moreover, claimed on October 25 that the information he had received from Russian naval personnel indicated that a British sub was responsible for sinking the Kursk. Sergei Zhekov is a member of a parliamentary probe which has looked into the accident. Early on, he made headlines in Russia when he announced that a missile fired from a Russian warship had sunk the Kursk. The U.S. and British governments have continued to deny that their subs–there were reportedly two American and one British vessel in the area–had anything to do with the loss of the Kursk. The government apparently has not yet accepted Kuroyedov’s and Zhekov’s public statements. Klebanov, who heads the commission investigating the Kursk accident, indicated that his panel is still working on the assumption that the Kursk could have been destroyed by any of three factors: a collision with another undersea object, a collision with a World War II landmine or an emergency on board the Kursk itself (AFP, Russian agencies, October 25).

These sudden claims are something of a surprise in that another mission to the Kursk–this one carried out from September 27-October 2 by the Russian research vessel Akademik Keldysh–reportedly turned up nothing. According to independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer, the government dispatched the Keldysh to the Kursk not to prepare for the recovery mission, as the government had claimed, but to make use of its unique undersea exploration technologies to examine the area around the Kursk. Felgengauer quoted a Russian naval officer who admitted that the Keldysh intended to search for fragments in the accident area that would indicate the presence of a foreign sub. The Keldysh reportedly scanned four square kilometers around the Kursk, but failed to come up with any such evidence (Moscow Times, October 19; Moskovsky komsomolets, October 14).

In a commentary published yesterday, Felgengauer goes on to argue that the Russian government may also intend the current recovery mission to be less an effort to bring up the bodies of Russian dead–though the Kremlin wants the Russian public to think it is just that–than to find some form of conclusive evidence which would implicate a foreign sub in the Kursk’s destruction (Moscow Times, October 26). That remains an unproved contention. But given the Russian government’s mendacity to date on a host of issues related to the Kursk, it seems likely that others may be drawn to similar conclusions.