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Western Press Review: The Plight Of Russia's Kursk Submarine

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 16 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The major subject of Western press commentary today is the plight of Russia's nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea three days ago (Sunday) during a naval exercise. No explanation of the cause of the sinking has yet been offered by Moscow, and the condition of the ship's 116-man crew is thought to be worsening with each passing hour. Most press comments focus on the disaster's impact on Russian military policy, as well as the blow it is likely to be for President Vladimir Putin, who has been championing a revival of the navy as a cornerstone of a revival of his nation's demoralized armed forces.


Britain's Times daily speaks of "hard questions for Russia in the agony of the Kursk disaster." The paper writes in an editorial: "For any nation, this grim drama would be a catastrophic event. For Russians, it is a terrible metaphor of the risks to which faulty equipment and sloppy maintenance expose their forces in every sector of the cash-strapped Russian military machine. The rescuers," the paper goes on, "are battling not just for the lives of the trapped men, but for the future of the Northern Fleet as Russia's key strike force -- and, perhaps, for the maintenance of Russia's claims to dominate the sea lanes even of its home waters."

"The Kursk class [submarine]," the editorial notes, "is a key element in President Putin's planned revival of Russian global sea power under a new 'naval doctrine.' The inquest [into the cause of the disaster] will therefore be politically charged as well," it says, "all too probably, as it is tinged with human tragedy. Both sides in the raging Russian argument about whether to concentrate the greatly shrunken defense budget on nuclear deterrence or conventional defense will use this disaster as ammunition."

The Times goes on: "Nothing [could] give a sharper edge to Mr. Putin's complaint, [made] only last Friday (Aug. 11), that 'when pilots can't fly and sailors are hardly ever at sea, can we say that all is well with our armed forces?'" It adds: "With 70 percent of the fleet currently not seaworthy, one naval commander -- Rear Admiral Nikolai Konorev -- recently predicted that, on current spending levels, the Russian Navy could cease to exist by 2015."


In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Urban says that "Putin has received nothing but bad news over the past few days. First a bomb went off in a Moscow shopping center, then fighting resumed in Chechnya, and now the accident aboard the Kursk." Writing from Moscow, Urban continues: "The crippled submarine is an especially bitter blow for Putin. Only a few weeks ago, he set out to prop up the navy's morale and commanded it to fly the nation's flag on all the world's oceans -- the way it did during the Soviet era."

Urban argues that "the [eventual] loss of the Kursk and a botched rescue operation will have hardly any repercussions on Putin's own position. He has always been careful when dealing with the military anyway, regularly avoiding any serious confrontation with its generals. But," he adds, "[it] could affect projected military reforms, plans for which have just been finalized. The new plans envisage cuts in land-based missiles, concentrating instead on the submarine fleet and air force. The Kursk and its sister vessels were assigned a key role in these plans."

Urban argues further: "Important military figures who support the old strategy -- in which massive land-based missiles were of central importance -- could now gain the upper hand once more. Their argument presupposes a confrontation between East and West, and it would mean a return to the Cold War mindset and would eat up thousands of millions that Putin needs to stabilize the economy." He concludes that "a disaster at sea would play right into the hands of those figures who desire a greater international role for the Russian military. [Their chief argument] is the threat of Russia declining into political insignificance if the military is further starved of funds."


In the New York Times today, Moscow-based military analyst Aleksandr Pikayev writes in a commentary that the Kursk disaster "should not be a surprise, especially to the Russian navy. [The] only surprise,' he adds, "is that this is Russia's first serious submarine accident in more than a decade."

Pikayev explains: "The Russian military, which has been deteriorating for many years, is now running on a mere $5 billion a year, in contrast to the $300 billion the United States spends annually on defense. From this meager allowance," he notes, "Russia's commanders must pay 1.2 million soldiers and maintain one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world." He adds: "The result is a Russian navy that by many accounts cannot properly take care of its ships or submarines."

According to what the commentator calls "reliable reports" in Moscow, "routine [naval] maintenance is rare and, when it is done, it is not always handled properly. Submarines often break down and spend most of their time at military bases. Crew members are unable to conduct routine military exercises. The skills and qualifications of the officers have eroded, and young sailors, usually raw recruits, don't gain necessary experience. Officers are paid poorly, frequently less than $100 a month, if they are paid at all. Moonlighting is common, meaning that [the officers] probably pay divided attention to their primary duties."


In the same vein, a news analysis for the Financial Times of Britain by Alexander Nicoll and Andrew Jack says the crippling of the Kursk "strikes at the heart of what is left of a once-mighty navy." Their analysis continues: "The declared strength of the navy is less than a fifth of what it was in 1990, making the modern Russian navy roughly the size of Britain's. Many of those vessels listed as being in commission are probably unserviceable. Very few are new -- the Kursk, commissioned in 1995, is one of the newest."

They say further: "Ships rarely put to sea, and crews are paid late. According to Joanna Kidd, naval analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, a four-day exercise last year used up the navy's entire fuel reserve." The analysts add: "Red Star, the Ministry of Defense newspaper, has called for the navy to have a broader international role, not simply guarding the coastline but operating in blue water oceans. [Putin] made a point of riding in a submarine during his presidential election campaign this spring, and said in a speech in Kaliningrad last month that the navy 'was and remains a symbol of the strength of the Russian state, one of the foundations of its defensive might.'"

"Moscow," the analysts recall, "was embarrassed last year when, in spite of repeated promises to send a flotilla to the Mediterranean during [the] Kosovo conflict, it managed to deploy just one intelligence vessel." But, they note, "Russia is not alone in having problems with nuclear submarines. The British Royal Navy's Tireless, an attack submarine modernized last year, limped into Gibraltar in May after radioactive coolant began leaking from its nuclear reactor, and remains docked there in spite of local protests."

Then they say: "Though the U.S., Britain and France have offered to help with the Kursk, Russia has not taken them up -- perhaps out of pride, belief that Russian rescue efforts would be sufficient, or concern about military secrets."


A similar news analysis in the Washington Post by Steven Mufson and Kathy Sawyer (published today in the IHT) argues: "Whatever problem sank the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, it had to be big -- and that fact alone can complicate rescue efforts for [crew] members trapped in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea. U.S submarine experts said the 154-meter submarine [was] designed to withstand an enemy torpedo attack and had at least two escape mechanisms for the crew."

They add: "At the submarine's [current] depth, it is extremely unlikely that crew members might escape without sophisticated equipment. The water pressure would make opening the submarine hatches difficult and dangerous. Even if the crew members could get out and had special breathing gear," the analysts go on, "they would risk death from the extreme pressure or hypothermia from the cold water before reaching the surface."


In an analysis for the French daily Liberation, the paper's Moscow correspondent Anne Nivat writes of what she calls the largely "eloquent silence" about the naval disaster among most Russian non-military officials. "For the moment," she says, "reactions from politicians have been rare -- which makes the silence of Vladimir Putin, now on vacation, even more eloquent." She recalls that, during his electoral campaign in the spring, Putin "journeyed to Murmansk to render homage to Russia's Baltic fleet."

Nivat concludes with a quote from Russian military analyst Aleksandr Pikayev -- the author of today's New York Times commentary -- who told her: "First, the bombing last week in Moscow, now the submarine. Each time, human lives are sacrificed. Our head of state ought to say something [about the Kursk disaster] before the end of the rescue operation."