Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 39

A four-month investigation into the tragic loss of the Kursk nuclear submarine concluded last week with the announcement of several preliminary findings that are likely to have generated no small amount of consternation within Russia’s naval high command. During a joint press conference given by Naval Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov on February 18, it was revealed that investigators had ruled out the possibility of a collision with another vessel–foreign or Russian–as the cause of the preliminary explosion that led to the much larger blast that sent the nuclear-powered submarine to the ocean floor. With this as prelude, Kuroyedov appeared to make it clear that the navy is now being forced to look at a long-suspected torpedo as the likely cause of the Kursk disaster. Ustinov, meanwhile, spoke of a general “sloppiness” in the way that the Russian Northern Fleet command had organized the August 2000 naval exercise in which the Kursk was lost, and of a similar disrespect for discipline and proper procedure in the actions of the submarine’s own crew. He made it clear, however, that he was drawing no direct link between this sloppiness and the actual series of events that led to the Kursk’s demise.

Ustinov’s description of disciplinary and procedural problems within the Northern Fleet were in large part a restatement of conclusions he had announced last December and which the Kremlin used at the time to launch a major housecleaning atop the Northern Fleet’s command. More interesting this time was his blunt announcement that investigators had found no reason to believe that a foreign vessel was in the immediate area of the Kursk at the time it went down, or that any such vessel had played a role in the Russian sub’s demise. Ustinov’s remarks appeared to cut the legs out from under the Russian naval command, which has long tried to pin the blame for the Kursk disaster on American or British subs. “There is no information whatsoever about another vessel being around,” Ustinov was quoted as saying. The Russian prosecutor appeared also to dismiss assertions made by Russian naval commanders to the effect that they had seen evidence of a buoy from a foreign submarine near the site of the Kursk crash. “That could be a big jellyfish, which colonize the Barents Sea at that time of year,” he said. Ustinov’s comments marked the first time a Russian official had publicly rejected the so-called “collision theory” as a possible explanation for the Kursk’s demise.

Ustinov’s conclusions come after what investigators say has been an exhaustive examination of the Kursk itself–the vessel was salvaged and carried to port last fall–as well as the sub’s log books, recordings and three notes left by crew members. The Russian prosecutor’s remarks suggested that the investigation also ruled out another of the theories in circulation regarding the Kursk’s demise, namely, that the sub had been hit by a torpedo accidentally fired by the Russian nuclear cruiser Peter the Great, which had also been participating in the naval exercise. Ustinov nevertheless made clear that the conclusions announced on February 18 are only preliminary, and that he still does not know precisely what caused the initial explosion that doomed the Kursk. He claimed, however, that investigators hope to get more definitive answers this spring, when the Russian navy will reportedly return to the Kursk wreck site in order to recover the vessel’s bow section, which was cut off from the rest of the sub during last year’s salvage operations.

Kuroyedov, meanwhile, told reporters on February 18 that the navy intended to take what Russian sources identified as the 65-76 Kit torpedo out of service because of suspicions that a malfunction of the torpedo may have caused the Kursk disaster. Kuroyedov said that the torpedo, first designed in 1957, contained an overly volatile fuel mix and should have been removed from service earlier. His statement appeared to mark a belated acknowledgement that criticism of the torpedo, widely voiced right after the Kursk disaster, had been on target. Russian officials also admitted that the practice torpedo on the Kursk was equipped with an experimental battery, although it was otherwise no different from those that the navy has been using for years. Indeed, at least one senior Russian naval commander criticized the decision to take the torpedo out of service, despite the fact that other navies had stopped using similarly designed torpedoes since the demise of the British submarine HMS Sidon in 1955. The 65-76 Kit was said by Russian sources to be among the most capable in the navy’s arsenal.

Just how significant the February 18 announcements are remains unclear at the moment, though the results of the investigation appear to have been at least partially responsible for the recent demotion of the man who headed a government commission examining the Kursk disaster, former Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. Indeed, assigning blame for the Kursk disaster is a politically loaded issue in Russia. Conclusions reached on this score could ultimately have important repercussions for Russia’s navy and the armed forces more generally. It is worth remembering that the August 2000 Kursk disaster remains the biggest blot on President Vladimir Putin’s political record, and that the Kremlin has already used the results of the investigation to launch one bloodletting atop the naval command–the dismissal of some fourteen top naval officers last December. Moreover, the fleet command had tried in the wake of the Kursk disaster to blame a Western sub for the tragedy not only because that would deflect attention from the navy’s own shortcomings, but because it would help to fan anti-Western feelings in Russia more generally. Against this background, it is not impossible that Putin is using the Kursk investigation both to justify more defense personnel changes, and to rein in a military leadership that has grown restive over the Kremlin’s pro-Western foreign and security policies.

It will be interesting in the weeks to come, therefore, to see whether the Russian navy is, in fact, ordered to begin preparations for the recovery of the Kursk’s bow section. Many observers in Russia believed that last year’s decision to separate the bow from the rest of the Kursk was primarily intended not so much to aid the salvage effort, as Russian officials claimed, but to leave on the ocean floor the one piece of hardware that might carry some conclusive evidence rebutting naval claims that a foreign sub was responsible for the Kursk’s demise. That the naval high command is not inclined just yet to accept Ustinov’s disavowal of the “collision theory” was suggested on February 18, when Kuroyedov told reporters that the Russian government commission investigating the Kursk–an investigation that is separate from Ustinov’s own–continues to operate with the understanding that a collision with a foreign sub remains a possible explanation for the Kursk’s demise (AP, February 18; Moscow Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Izvestia, Kommersant, DPA, February 19;, February 18-19; Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 22).