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The Week In Russia: The Kursk And The Moskva

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) talks with Irina Lyachin, the wife of the commander of the Kursk submarine, and her daughter in their flat in the naval town of Vidyayevo on August 22, 2000.

NOTE TO READERS: The Week In Russia will next appear on May 6.

A Russian flagship sinks and President Vladimir Putin stays silent. More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine, where evidence of atrocities mounts while Putin sets its sights on the east and south. Meanwhile in Moscow, fears that Putin's war on Ukraine will leave Russia's "economy crippled, its security compromised, and its global influence gutted" are growing, a report says.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

August 2000

"It sank."

That's what Russian President Vladimir Putin said in September 2000, when CNN's Larry King asked him what had happened to the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, which had sunk in the Barents Sea on August 12, killing all 118 crewmen.

More than 22 years later, the Russian military has said little more than that about the loss last week of the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, which Ukraine says it hit with a pair of Neptune missiles fired from the shore. And Putin, so far, has said nothing at all.

The near silence of the Kremlin and the military has left families of sailors who were aboard the Moskva scrambling to find out what happened to them -- and meeting more silence, in some cases.

Two women sit on a bench as the Russian Navy's guided missile cruiser Moskva sails back into harbor in Sevastopol, Crimea, after tracking NATO warships in the Black Sea on November 16, 2021.
Two women sit on a bench as the Russian Navy's guided missile cruiser Moskva sails back into harbor in Sevastopol, Crimea, after tracking NATO warships in the Black Sea on November 16, 2021.

In the days since the warship sank on April 14, a day after Ukraine said it was hit, dramatically different depictions of the situation have emerged from the state and some of the parents desperately seeking to find out whether their sons are dead or alive.

The most substantial piece of information disseminated by the Defense Ministry -- a video it said showed the commander of the navy meeting members of the Moskva's crew in Sevastopol, the Crimean port where the fleet is based -- is one that may have raised more questions than it answered.

Up to about 150 sailors could be seen in the video -- all seemingly unhurt and showing no signs of ill-effects from the fiery incident at sea days before it aired.

The ministry has said that crew members were evacuated from the Moskva, which it said sank while being towed in a storm following a fire on board caused by the detonation of unspecified ammunition -- suggesting that the cause was an accident. But it has said nothing about casualties aboard the vessel.

'Where Are The Others?'

So even though the number of men lined up in the video looked far short of the more than 500 sailors who were believed to have been on board the Moskva, a viewer watching the placid scene on a windy spring day in Sevastopol might be led to believe that all was well -- that the warship was lost but its crew survived.

Contrast that with the words of Irina Shkrebets, who has been trying to find her son, Dmitry, since she and her husband learned that the Moskva had sunk. One place they looked was a hospital in Sevastopol, where she said some 200 wounded sailors were being treated.

"We looked at every burned child. I can't tell you how hard it was, but I couldn't find mine. There were only 200 people [at the hospital] and there were more than 500 on board the cruiser," she said. "Where are the others? We looked in Krasnodar and everywhere else, we've called everywhere, but we can't find him."

Dmitry Shkrebets's parents are searching for their son.
Dmitry Shkrebets's parents are searching for their son.

The searches by parents contained faint echoes of the journeys that Russian women and men made to the Chechnya region during the first war there in the 1990s, filled with hope and dread as they risked their lives to search for their sons -- but in this case, they are weaving through a bureaucracy, not a war zone.

And the demise of the Moskva bears a far greater resemblance to the sinking of the Kursk, even though that tragedy took place in peacetime and was caused by accidental explosions on board, despite elaborate efforts to pin blame on the West.

The Kursk disaster was a major setback for Putin, who had started his first presidential term three months earlier and faced fierce criticism over his handling of the crisis and its aftermath. Critics said he and the military were slow to start rescue operations -- with several crewmen surviving in the stern compartment of the stricken submarine for several hours at least after the blasts -- and rejected foreign assistance until it was too late.

Lesson Learned?

It tested Putin's ability to handle public pressure and revealed an adamant desire to avoid blame -- to the point where he suggested, falsely, that grieving widows and sisters of crew members were prostitutes hired to harm his reputation.

In another Russia, or another country, the lessons of the Kursk might have led to more openness and transparency -- to greater accountability of those in power to the citizens they serve, and not the other way around.

The virtual silence over the sinking of the Moskva suggests that Putin has moved steadily in the opposite direction in the years since. And the state has taken numerous steps to prevent the public from getting accurate information about developments in the war on Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with an unidentified relative of a crew member of the submarine Kursk in the navy town of Vidyayevo on August 22, 2000.
Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with an unidentified relative of a crew member of the submarine Kursk in the navy town of Vidyayevo on August 22, 2000.

The number of deaths among the Moskva's crew is unknown, as is the number of deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine since Putin launched the large-scale invasion on February 24 -- after nearly eight years of war between Kyiv's forces and Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, the suffering from the unprovoked invasion seems incalculable. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and more than 5 million people have fled the country -- with more than 7 million others driven from their homes but still in Ukraine.

Evidence of war crimes continues to mount, both in the areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv that Russian forces devastated before retreating a few weeks ago and in numerous cities, towns, and villages in the east and south, including besieged Mariupol, Izyum, and Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv.

The Donbas and regions relatively nearby are now the main focus of the fighting. After failing to topple President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government or capture Kyiv following what are widely believed to be major miscalculations about what the Russian invasion could achieve and how fast, Putin now seems determined to seize control of at least the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and probably also swaths of territory nearby, including a "land corridor" from the Russian border to the isthmus that links mainland Ukraine to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia occupied and seized in 2014.

'Years Of Isolation'

If that is the plan, whether the Russian military can achieve it is unknown and may hinge heavily on the volume and variety of military aid the West provides to Ukraine.

In Russia, meanwhile, there are rumblings of dissatisfaction and concern in circles close to Putin -- though maybe not within the very small circle of hawkish associates who seem to have had his ear more than ever in the last year or two.

Citing 10 people "with direct knowledge of the situation," Bloomberg News reported that "with military losses mounting and Russia facing unprecedented international isolation, a small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders are quietly questioning his decision to go to war."

"The ranks of the critics at the pinnacle of power remain limited, spread across high-level posts in government and state-run business," the April 20 article says. "They believe the invasion was a catastrophic mistake that will set the country back for years."

Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link in Moscow on March 10.
Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link in Moscow on March 10.

Mark Galeotti, an author and political analyst who is an expert on Russia's intelligence and security services, wrote on Twitter that he had been hearing that, too -- "and it is certainly not confined to technocrats [and] businesspeople."

"Even within the security structures, there's growing alarm and dismay at the invasion, the way it was mishandled, and Putin's apparent refusal to appreciate the long-term dangers," he wrote.

At the same time, the Bloomberg article says that "support for Putin's war remains deep across much of Russia's elite, with many insiders embracing in public and in private the Kremlin's narrative that conflict with the West is inevitable and that the economy will adapt to the sweeping sanctions" imposed by the West.

And while "more and more top insiders have come to believe that Putin's commitment to continue the invasion will doom Russia to years of isolation and heightened tension that will leave its economy crippled, its security compromised, and its global influence gutted," it says, there is "no sign that Putin is yet ready" to cut it short or make "the serious concessions needed to reach a cease-fire."

"Putin is determined to push on with the fight, even if the Kremlin has had to reduce its ambitions from a quick, sweeping takeover of much of the country to a grueling battle for the Donbas region in the east," Bloomberg reported, citing its sources. "Settling for less would leave Russia hopelessly vulnerable and weak in the face of the threat seen from the U.S. and its allies, according to this view."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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