Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 158

The sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which has dominated headlines in Moscow and around the world for the past two weeks, could prove to be a watershed event for Russia’s ever more decrepit armed forces, if not for the country’s political system as a whole. Perhaps even more than Russia’s first war in Chechnya, the tragedy which unfolded around the Kursk and the loss of its 118-man crew revealed with shattering intensity all the ills which continue to plague Russia’s military establishment: the shabbiness and despair which is such an indelible part of life for Russia’s 1.2 million soldiers and for the hundreds of thousands of others who inhabit Russian military bases and are tied to the military complex, and the equal shabbiness with which the military and political leaderships all too often treat this same community of people and their ready resort to Soviet-style lies and misinformation in the face of misfortune or calamity. The tragedy also highlighted anew the abject condition of Russia’s naval forces and the parallel willingness of the military leadership to risk the safety of naval personnel in the conduct of a major exercise aimed more at impressing the West and winning political points in Moscow than at addressing the navy’s real needs. Finally, the loss of the Kursk was not only a tragedy but also a humiliation for a government and military leadership having great power pretensions but lacking either the financial or the professional resources to make those pretensions a reality.

In this broader context, it was perhaps ironic that the Kursk went down during a naval exercise in the Barents Sea only a day after a key Russian Security Council meeting at which President Vladimir Putin and military leaders acknowledged that the armed forces continue to face debilitating problems and resolved to act on a plan to restructure, rebuild and–if Russian reports are correct–to reduce them. Unfortunately, in a reflection of the same sort of secrecy which would play so prominent a part in the military leadership’s handling of the Kursk tragedy, almost no information about decisions taken at the meeting was made public (Reuters, AP, August 11; BBC, August 12).

But it would not be a surprise if those decisions included a commitment to allocate greater funding for the strengthening of Russia’s navy. In what is perhaps another irony related to the Kursk, the tragedy came amid indications that Putin has adopted the Navy as his favored service, and that the creation of a naval force capable of projecting Russian power beyond its borders is among his key defense priorities. Indeed, Western military observers have indicated that the maneuvers in which the Kursk was participating were part of the largest Russian naval exercise since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the exercise appears to have been held in part to prepare the Kursk–the newest Oscar-II class attack submarine in the Russian fleet–to escort a flotilla to the Mediterranean Sea later this year in what the Kremlin apparently hoped would be a show of Russian naval strength abroad (UPI, August 15; Washington Post, August 26).

The Kursk has instead become a symbol of Russian naval weakness, and its loss a reflection of the once proud service’s continuing deterioration. According to the Russian admiralty, the country has reduced its naval fleet by 1,000 vessels over the past decade and, if Navy Commander Vladimir Kuroyedov is to be believed, the service could have as few as sixty ships remaining by the year 2016. The number of nuclear-powered submarines has fallen at a similar rate and is said to be down by two-thirds over the past ten years–from sixty-two in 1990 to eighteen earlier this year. Moreover, most of these subs are said generally out of service. According to Navy officials, some 70 percent of the operational surface ships are in need of major repairs. The two facts are not unrelated. At the time the Kursk went down, two of the Northern Fleet’s best-known rescue vessels–the Titov and the Pamir–were unable to help. One, undergoing extensive repairs, has long been out of commission. The other was reportedly renovated recently, but the Navy lacked funding to make it seaworthy and it continues to sit at a naval facility in Severomorsk. An acute lack of funding likewise reported to have been the reason why the government moved in 1995 to disband Murmansk’s deep-sea divers’ service. The unit might have made a difference during the attempts to rescue sailors from the Kursk (BBC; August 14; AP, August 21).

In a Russian television address delivered on August 23, Putin defended Russian military leaders against charges that they had failed to move swiftly or expertly enough to organize the rescue attempt of the Kursk’s crew. But some Russian sources suggested that the Russian president may only be biding his time, and that a general housecleaning atop the military leadership may be on the horizon. Indeed, the sinking of the Kursk and the public’s revulsion over the military’s hapless response to it could ultimately provide the political cover for Putin not only to get rid of some top commanders, but also to launch the sort of far-reaching military reforms which army critics have been demanding (and generals resisting) for over a decade. But Putin has also taken two more pragmatic steps in recent days aimed at keeping the military happy and assuaging public concern over the fate of Russia’s soldiers: Last week he announced both a boost–albeit unspecified–in the 2001 military budget, and a 20 percent pay raise for armed forces personnel (Reuters, August 24-25; UPI, August 24).