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Russia: 'Kursk' Report Sparks Questions About Future

  • Gregory Feifer

The results of an investigation into the sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine published in an official government newspaper last week reveal a shocking display of negligence and reliance on shoddy and outdated equipment. Analysts say the detailed report shows the Kremlin has decided it wants to put the controversial incident behind it by coming clean. But relatives of the "Kursk" crew say that the disturbing findings, to the contrary, may open the way for further action.

Moscow, 2 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russians have spent the past several days poring over a damning report on the official investigation into the August 2000 sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine.

The report, published in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 29 August, exhaustively details the results of Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov's investigation of the naval disaster. It uncovered a stunning degree of negligence on almost all levels of command.

In a 133-volume final report issued last month, Ustinov blamed the tragedy on a torpedo that leaked highly explosive hydrogen peroxide fuel, which Western countries have long abandoned. Except for the four-page summary published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta," the details of the report have been withheld from the public.

In a highly controversial move, Ustinov concluded by saying that no one was to blame for the explosion, which killed the "Kursk's" entire crew of 118 during naval exercises in the Barents Sea.

The accident highlighted the level of degradation plaguing the once-mighty Soviet Navy, which has decayed dramatically due to lack of funds, equipment, and discipline in post-Soviet Russia.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent military analyst. He told RFE/RL that last week's report came as no surprise. He said the reasons behind the accident were "clear to everyone from the very beginning."

Felgenhauer also said there is no question the Kremlin is behind the publication of the report. He said that it reflects the new line of President Vladimir Putin, whose administration decided that a cover-up would ultimately be worse for the government than allowing the truth to come out.

That new attitude is also evident in the Kremlin's response to last month's devastating helicopter crash in Chechnya, which left 118 civilians and servicemen dead. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, despite alleging that the crash was a result of a missile strike, has stopped short of blaming Chechen rebels and has instead lashed out at Russian military personnel for "negligence."

The new readiness to lay blame marks a distinct switch from the government's approach to crisis management as recently as two years ago. Felgenhauer said Putin's handling of both the "Kursk" report and the helicopter crash harken back to the tactics of an earlier leader. "In that, he's fully following the tradition of Josef Stalin, who wrote wonderful articles and made speeches about the importance of criticism and self-criticism. Vladimir Lenin also spoke about that. As head of a massive feudal military-bureaucratic empire, [Putin] understands that if he hides such nastiness under the carpet, then things will be even worse," Felgenhauer said.

In coming clean, the government has revealed systematic degradation in the navy. Inspections of a number of submarines' torpedoes in 2000 and 2001 turned up corrosion in some weapons and a series of faulty rubber gaskets that allowed fuel to leak.

Furthermore, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" says, data about the "Kursk's" weaponry were not logged ahead of its last voyage, as required -- a particularly glaring case of negligence given that the torpedoes needed frequent maintenance.

The projectile that exploded on the "Kursk" was built in Kazakhstan in 1990. It underwent repairs in 1993 and 1994, but some of its parts were still in use years after the end of their recommended service life.

Investigators also said the "Kursk's" crew had not been trained to use hydrogen peroxide torpedoes and had never previously handled them. Moreover, the order allowing the crew to use the torpedoes was signed by officers who did not have the authority to do so.

The tragedy began with an explosion that sparked a fire, setting off the submarine's ammunition. A second blast ripped through the vessel's forward sections, killing most of the crew. A handful of survivors gathered in the submarine's ninth compartment to wait for a rescue that came too late.

Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, to which the "Kursk" belonged, was on the "Peter the Great" cruiser directing the flotilla exercises in which the "Kursk" was engaged.

The warship was near the submarine when it went down and recorded the explosions. But Popov chose to ignore the signals, steering his ship away from the area and ordering a search only nine hours later.

The submarine was located 31 hours later. Its emergency buoy failed to surface because it was improperly attached and lacked proper equipment.

Authorities initially remained silent about the accident. Once word got out, however, the government, and the president in particular, were publicly berated for their response.

Putin failed to break off a vacation on the Black Sea to return to Moscow while officials initially turned down help from abroad even as Russian rescue efforts failed because of poorly trained rescue crews and inadequate equipment.

Top-ranking naval officers came out with different versions of events, at first claiming that the crew was still alive, and later blaming the sinking on a collision with a foreign sub.

Popov, who along with a number of other top-ranking admirals was fired after the "Kursk" sinking, now says he disagrees with the report findings published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta."

In remarks reported on 30 August by the Interfax news agency, Popov said: "The conclusions of the government, that the 'Kursk' submarine was sunk by the explosion of a torpedo, are the opinions of the government commission. However, there are other points of view."

Felgenhauer said the navy's top brass was opposed to last week's publication of the findings, and would have preferred to keep pushing other versions, such as the allegation that a U.S. torpedo caused the "Kursk" to go down.

But the government, he said, decided to distance itself from such attempts to obscure the truth. "It was recently announced that those kinds of opinions had to be opposed, because they contradict Putin's general idea about moving closer to the United States. So that means it's necessary to get to the truth about the guilty, those very same idiotic admirals [who oppose the publication of the 'Rossiiskaya gazeta' report]," Felgenhauer said.

Igor Kurdin heads the St. Petersburg Submariners' Club, which has been closely involved in the efforts of the "Kursk" victims' relatives to get to the truth behind the tragic accident. Kurdin praised Ustinov's investigation, saying it was carried out fully and objectively. But, he said, the number of details uncovered makes it extremely strange that no blame was allocated.

The victims' relatives and their lawyers now say publication of the report means the Prosecutor-General's Office is open to possible further action in the matter. Kurdin said: "We, the submariners' club, will immediately use the opportunity [presented by the report's publication]. Our members are competent people, believe me -- commanders of Soviet and Russian submarines who suffered similar accidents themselves, [submarine] designers. We have enough people who can testify as experts, and if there really is a unique opportunity to examine the matter, we will use it, without question."

Kurdin said the "Kursk" victims' relatives, a number of whom are represented by lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, are now trying to initiate a court case. Kurdin said, "Only a suit can put an end to the matter of the 'Kursk's' sinking."

Kursk memorial committee head Vladimir Mityaev, the father of "Kursk" Senior Lieutenant Aleksei Mityaev and a former submarine officer himself, said he wants the guilty to be punished. "We're not thirsting after anyone's blood, but the person who's guilty has to be thrown in jail. And he will be. Notwithstanding the comfortable desk jobs they have now, where all [the guilty] have been reassigned. He'll be thrown in jail -- we'll see to that," Mityaev said.

But for now, Mityaev said, he has other priorities, namely, to erect a memorial in St. Petersburg's Serafimovskoe Cemetery, where a number of the "Kursk" crew are buried.