Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 159

Some of the most interesting speculation in Russia, however, has focused on torpedoes the Kursk was carrying. The London Times reported yesterday, for example, that many in Moscow are now pointing to what they claim was an attempt to test a new torpedo on board the Kursk during the naval maneuvers in which the submarine sank (The Times [UK], August 28). That same possibility had been raised earlier by Aleksandr Rutskoi, the retired Russian general and former vice president who is currently the governor of Russia’s Kursk region. Rutskoi was quoted on August 22 as charging that the Kursk was carrying an experimental torpedo to be test-fired during the naval maneuvers. “It is necessary to investigate this aspect, and if a new torpedo was really being tested on the submarine, it is a crime,” he said. Rutskoi argued that test-firings of new weapons should not be conducted during training exercises. Rutskoi also denounced the navy for conducting submarine exercises at a time when it “does not have the necessary means to conduct rescues” (New York Times, August 23-24).

That the Russian Defense Ministry may have been trying to cover up the possibility that a new and unproven torpedo was the cause of the Kursk accident was suggested by an August 20 report published on the web site of Bellona, the Norwegian environmental group which has long been investigating the activities of the Russian Northern Fleet. The Bellona report said that Krasnaya zvezda (Red Star), the Defense Ministry’s main newspaper, had moved on August 18 to remove an article from the web version of the newspaper which suggested that the blame for the Kursk accident could be attributed to a decision–one reportedly forced upon the Defense Ministry–to put a new and cheaper torpedo aboard the Kursk. The article in question, which never appeared in the printed version of Krasnaya zvezda, went on to say that the Kursk had been refitted at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk in 1998 in order to carry the new torpedoes. The Navy had reportedly protested the move, charging that the new torpedoes were difficult to store and unsafe to handle, but was apparently overruled by defense industrial interests. The printed version of Krasnaya zvezda that was released to the public instead contained a version of the Kursk accident based on the notion of a collision with an “unidentified object.” The Bellona reported noted that the printed version accorded with the views of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the official who is heading the Kremlin’s investigation into the Kursk accident (www.bellona.no, August 18).

Klebanov’s appearance in this context is of interest because he has been portrayed by some Russian press reports as a key player in the public and very political battle between the Russian Defense Minister Sergeev and the chief of the General Staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin. Klebanov, whose responsibilities include some oversight of the defense industrial sector is reported to have allied himself with Kvashnin, and, according to some speculation, has moved in recent weeks to wrest control from the Defense Ministry on some defense procurement issues. Any focus of public attention on the possibility that a cheaper, substandard torpedo–one forced upon the Navy–might be the cause of the Kursk tragedy would presumably be a major embarrassment for him, and might have implications for what is expected to be a forthcoming shake-up of the military leadership. Indeed, some reports in recent weeks have seen Klebanov as a possible civilian replacement for Russia’s current defense minister (see the Monitor, August 1, 4).

The possibility that the Kursk went down because of a botched torpedo test of some sort has also introduced yet another possible scenario–one, incredibly, with a Chechen angle. According to reports out of Russia, two civilians were aboard the Kursk–Mamed Gadzhiyev and Arnold Borisov–each of them from the Dagdizel naval weapons center in Dagestan. In an apparent reference to the same new torpedo, they reportedly were on board in order to “supervise and check if the torpedo was working as it should.” There apparent presence on the Kursk is further evidence that torpedo testing might have been planned, but Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has apparently also launched an investigation into whether the two might have a connection to Chechen rebels and whether they might somehow have been responsible for sabotaging the Kursk’s training mission. This theory, at least, has apparently been put forward by FSB director Nikolai Patrushev. “We have been gathering information about them and found no data indicating that they were related to the accident on the nuclear submarine,” Patrushev was quoted as saying in Murmansk. His statement came after an announcement by Chechen rebel leaders that the Kursk had sunk after an explosion set off by a Dagestani kamikaze bomber (The Times [UK], August 28; Moscow Times, August 25; Kommersant daily, August 23; Novye Izvestia, August 25).