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Russia: A Year Later, Doubts and Anger Over 'Kursk' Remain

This Sunday (12 August) marks the one-year anniversary of the sinking of the "Kursk" Russian nuclear submarine and the death of its 118-member crew. As Dutch-led salvage efforts continue in the Barents Sea, a senior Russian naval official in Washington said yesterday he believes an onboard explosion -- and not a collision with a Western vessel or contact with a mine in the Barents seabed -- was responsible for the tragedy. The remarks reflect a marked shift from this time last year, when Russian officials were quick to accept the collision theory and slow to respond to offers of outside help. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports.

Moscow, 10 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 12 August 2000, a blast with the explosive force of two tons of TNT sent the "Kursk" nuclear submarine, and its 118 crew members, to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

A year later, the cause of the blast remains a mystery -- as does the slow reaction and apparent insensitivity of Russian officials in dealing with what was one of the country's worst naval disasters.

Military command waited two days before announcing that the submarine had sunk. Even then, officials appeared to deliberately mislead the public by saying the "Kursk" had gone down just the day before. They added that search vessels had picked up signs of tapping on the submarine's hull, indicating some crew members on board the Kursk might still be alive.

What followed was a torrent of misinformation and contradictory announcements from military officials, as the government repeatedly refused offers of foreign assistance as precious hours and days ticked by. When Russia finally allowed Western vessels to begin a search-and-rescue mission, several more days and any reasonable hope that the sailors might still be alive had passed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself continued a vacation in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for nearly a week before flying to Murmansk, where the devastated family members of the crew had gathered. Russians, outraged by officials' apparent lack of urgency, were highly critical of the government's response to the crisis, and skeptical of the many theories it put forward to explain the accident. Alternate theories said the "Kursk" had collided with a Western vessel, been struck by an underwater missile, or come into contact with a mine planted in the Barents seabed.

A year later, the puzzle remains unsolved. A Dutch-led salvage operation begun in mid-July is expected to eventually provide answers. But some Russian officials have already softened their earlier accusatory stance.

In Washington yesterday, Russian Admiral Sergei Lebedev said at a news conference that he believed an onboard explosion, not a collision, was responsible for the sinking of the "Kursk":

"It is very unlikely that the submarine collided with any object."

Lebedev, a member of the Russian delegation in Washington to discuss U.S. President George W. Bush's plan for a missile defense shield, stressed the statement reflected his personal belief and that the exact explanation would come only when the findings of an official investigation were made public.

But Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of the Russian Center for Strategic Studies, says he doubts people will ever really know the truth about the "Kursk." The current rescue operation, he says, is less a fact-finding effort than a public-relations salve for Putin, who he says is still smarting from last year's debacle.

"He [Putin] was really worried -- panic-stricken -- when he noticed he was losing his popularity because of his heartless reaction when the 'Kursk' [sank]. [Now,] he is doing his best to change [people's minds]. It is useless to lift the submarine now. At the time, he promised anything [to redeem his reputation] -- money [for the victims' families], lifting the submarine, and so on. He is doing it to compensate for his failure [to react]."

Some experts believe that the salvage operation -- which involves attaching steel cables to the "Kursk" in order to lift the 18,000-ton hull to the surface -- is useless because the front end of the sub, the part that holds the torpedoes and missiles, will be sawed off and left at the bottom of the sea. If the explosion was in fact caused by an exploded torpedo, as most people believe, investigators will never see it.

Moreover, experts say, the $70 million salvage effort could be dangerous. The submarine's torpedoes and cruise missiles could be affected by vibrations caused by the salvage operation. The sub also contains two nuclear reactors that could become detached as the hull is raised to the surface.

Alexei Yablokov, president of Russia's Center for Environmental Policy, has even said the reactors' emergency systems could stop functioning, causing an uncontrolled atomic reaction.

The salvage mission appears so risky, in fact, that many Russians and Westerners continue to question whether it should be conducted at all. But Piontkovsky says barring a nuclear mishap, the mission will prove a major boon to Putin's political career:

"[Putin's] reaction when the 'Kursk' [sank] was a spontaneous reaction. It was the response of a man without any feeling for other people's lives. [This reaction] made his ratings fall. His spin doctors are desperately trying to save his rating. They have taught him how to falsely react to such situations. Like a good student, he has learned how to express sorrow over the [recent] flood in the Yakutia [region] and the death of soldiers in Chechnya. But his first reaction to the 'Kursk' made us understand what kind of person Vladimir Vladimirovich [really] is."

In addition to whatever resolution the salvage efforts will provide, the state has also offered generous compensation for the families of the 'Kursk' victims -- a new apartment and 720,000 rubles (over $20,000). But rather than inspiring gratitude, the compensation packages have made many Russians even more suspicious of the government. Such a large offer, they say, can only be the product of a guilty conscience.