Buried at sea

International | The deaths of 118 sailors at the bottom of the Barents Sea left the Russian administration gasping for air

Issue: "Star makers, heartbreakers," Sept. 2, 2000

Even before divers pried open an escape hatch Aug. 21 and reported no sign of life within the comatose Russian submarine Kursk, a backlash against the 8-month-old administration of Vladimir Putin was forming. A Moscow Times editorial called the president's refusal of outside help "damning" and said the sailors' deaths "can be directly attributed to the president's arrogance." Mr. Putin had tried to distance his office from the developing tragedy by remaining on a seaside vacation when his Defense Ministry first reported the downed sub on Aug. 14. He made no public statements about the unfolding crisis for three days. He refused offers of rescue assistance from the United States, Britain, and Norway until four days after officials first reported the sinking. By that time, naval experts-as well as Mr. Putin-were acknowledging that chances of survival aboard the vessel were slim. Then Mr. Putin made an emotional pitch. At a Sunday afternoon meeting with an Orthodox church leader Aug. 20, he said: "With sorrow in our hearts and, I do not exaggerate, tears in our eyes, we are following all that is happening in the Barents Sea.... Alas, sometimes not we but the events themselves dictate the logic of the development of a situation. But until the last minute we will do all that can be done to save whoever can be saved. We will struggle for the lives of each of our sailors, and hope for the best." In Moscow, both the press and Russian military experts were not buying his statements. Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer put it bluntly: "As the magnitude of the human tragedy becomes clearer, the extent of deceit that accompanied the Kursk disaster has also been exposed." Russian naval authorities reported a "malfunction" aboard the Kursk on Monday, Aug. 14. They said the vessel did not sink but "descended to the ocean floor" the day before, Sunday, Aug. 13. But U.S. vessels in the Barents Sea reported detecting two explosions they believed were from the Kursk on Saturday morning, Aug. 12. A spokesman from Norway's foreign ministry said Russian officials alerted his office to the accident that same day, and that Russian forces in the Barents Sea lost contact with the Kursk even prior to the Saturday morning explosions. During critical hours after the Russian navy first discovered the crippled vessel, spokesman Igor Dygalo said rescuers were in radio contact with the crew. He said the crew had immediately signaled that it had shut down the nuclear reactors that supply power to the craft. Yet the sub issued no distress signal, and the crew did not float its satellite communication beacon. Later, a navy deputy chief of staff said audible signals from inside the hull, apparently seamen tapping out coded distress messages, indicated that there were no casualties on board. But as the crisis wore on, it was clear that officials had neither reliable contact with the vessel nor accurate reports on its condition. Russian officials steadfastly refused offers of outside help from Norway, Britain, and the United States-including a personal phone call from President Clinton to Mr. Putin-even though Russia has no teams of divers capable of mounting deep-sea rescue to 350 feet in the icy Barents Sea waters. Mr. Putin turned down the use of more advanced rescue mini-subs from the United States and Britain, as well as communications coordination offered by NATO. Mr. Putin finally summoned foreign aid-Norwegian and British divers and a British rescue sub-on Aug. 16 but continued the disinformation practice. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said Norwegian divers found the hatch to the submarine too damaged to be opened. But the Norwegians made no such claim, and eventually opened a rescue hatch and an inner hatch. They reached nine flooded compartments that revealed no sign of life. With credibility strained, Russian officials were not entirely trustworthy on the lurking question: radioactive fallout. No one could be sure that the crew shut down the sub's two 190-megawatt nuclear reactors. And military analysts also doubted Russian claims that no nuclear missiles were on board. Critics say the crisis shows Mr. Putin has borrowed the worst habits from his predecessors, both communist-era cronies and former President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Yeltsin in recent years earned a reputation for lack of vigor in times of crisis. Despite Mr. Putin's rhetoric about "new Russia," the president, a former KGB agent, has allowed Soviet-era generals, and the Soviet-era habit of hiding the truth, to dominate the military. The public controversy may conceal deeper rifts. For several weeks prior to the submarine crisis, Mr. Putin appeared poised to sack Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. By executive order, Mr. Putin removed six high-ranking officers without informing Gen. Sergeyev. Mr. Putin seemed intent on replacing him with a civilian or closer confidante. The loss of 10 senior officers-onboard the Kursk monitoring naval exercises at the time of the accident-further erodes Mr. Putin's ranks. In addition to the loss of life, the sinking of the Kursk is an important loss of prestige and capability for Russian forces. The 5-year-old Oscar II-class submarine-the longest and most recently commissioned in the Russian fleet-was its underwater lethal weapon. Similar in size and weight to U.S. Trident nuclear missile submarines, it was designed to stalk U.S. carrier battle groups and to attack with nuclear cruise missiles. While the United States is scaling back its nuclear submarine fleet-converting some to conventional missile use-Russia's military has increasingly relied on subs to make up for deficiencies in air and ground forces. Vice Adm. Daniel J. Murphy Jr., commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean, told Congress that the Kursk had the "very best technology." In testimony late last year, he said the Kursk trailed a U.S. carrier battle group-the first time in at least two years a Russian submarine had been in the Mediterranean. It took nine navy P-3C Orion electronic surveillance aircraft, diverted from missions over Kosovo, to seek out the sub. Writing in the Moscow Times, defense analyst Felgenhauer said, "The navy did manage to make the Kursk into a mystery ship, but to the detriment of its crew.... Our admirals know too well that disclosing secrets to the West may easily land them in the clink, while risking sailors' lives most likely will not."

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