MAYDAY FROM THE DEEPS

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Alexander Sabov Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 28, 2001, p. 3

An interview with Northern Fleet Commander Vyacheslav Popov

Question: Russia is not at war now. Is not a strong Navy a kind of unnecessary burden?

Vyacheslav Popov: No. I disagree most emphatically. What kind of a Navy Russia needs is a different matter. Economically, Russia cannot afford the Navy of the sort the Soviet Union used to have. Its reduction is therefore natural provided of course that it is well-balanced and new ships are built. Man’s resources on the land become depleted, but resources of the sea are colossal. How many of them have already been discovered in the Arctic Sea, how many of them are still waiting their turn! Oil, gas, coal, biological resources… Who is going to defend Russia’s national interests in the sea, which is the arena of such battles nowadays? Only the Navy. But even that is not all.

Calculations show that sending a single ship to Japan by the Northern Route is $150,000 cheaper than by the southern route. That is why the whole world and not Russia alone needs the Northern Route. It can function, however, only provided that our icebreakers have everything they need. And the Navy does too.

Question: Submarines have mostly collided in the northern neutral waters these past decade. Why is that?

Vyacheslav Popov: NATO submarines track ours, and our submarines track NATO ones. It has always been so and will remain so, unfortunately, in the foreseeable future. The West is going to be more active in this respect of course because our economic difficulties prevent us from sending submarines to where we used to send them in the past. At the same time, Western submarines constantly patrol their stations in the Barents Sea.

Question: Even now?

Vyacheslav Popov: Yes, even now. One or two, I do not know exactly, but they are there all right.

Question: Do you track them?

Vyacheslav Popov: Every now and then. We cannot afford full-fledged ASW forces out in the sea to keep an eye on foreign submarines on a permanent basis.

Question: The processes of globalization are underway. What concept of navigation does Russia defend nowadays?

Vyacheslav Popov: We advocate the necessity of the same rules established for underwater sailing as the ones already established for surface ships. The last revision of the International Rules of Collision at Sea Prevention was adopted in 1972.

All of that is universally adopted and signed by all sea-faring states. In underwater sailing, it is utter chaos. Russia has been advocating uniforms rules for years. Take the so-called combat training areas stretching 50-60 miles from the coast. It is time they were banned for all foreign submarines and particularly for the duration of maneuvers. The Americans would not hear of it.

Question: From the position of strength?

Vyacheslav Popov: Sure.

Question: The states with submarines are fairly few. Is it so difficult to reach an agreement by a few states?

Vyacheslav Popov: Had Russia and the United States reached an agreement, Great Britain and France would have probably joined it too. Only these four states have nuclear submarines. In 1993, a year after the incident in which the USS Baton Rouge rammed the Russian submarine Kostroma, Moscow suggested a draft Agreement between the government of the Russian Federation and the government of the United States on prevention of incidents with submerged submarines beyond the territorial waters. It has remained a draft ever since. These days, NATO always has about a dozen strategic submarines patrolling their stations: 6-7 Americans, 2 French, and one British.

Question: The situation in the wake of the terrorist acts in the United States seems to favor “an underwater treaty.” What do you think?

Vyacheslav Popov: The ideology of leadership from the position of strength has always been strong in the United States and the terrorist acts merely strengthened it. Let us, however, leave matters like that for Moscow and Washington to thrash out. The Navy is what I’m interested in. Unfortunately, the lack of such a treaty between four states results in regular collisions. We cannot even talk mutual assistance under the circumstances. Nobody will even announce that somebody else’s submarine is in trouble due to a collision. This may result in a serious conflict someday.

Question: Has the salvage operation in the Barents Sea brought us any closer to understanding what it was that happened to the Kursk?

Vyacheslav Popov: It is too early to say yet. The process has just begun. It will be possible to analyze all of the available data all at once only when investigators have documented everything and specialists have taken all readings.

For the time being, all I can say is this: everything we have seen with the Kursk brought to the dry dock concurs with our impressions and prognoses dated to when the submarine was on the seabed. Death was instantaneous or the men would have used the rescue capsule located above Compartment Two. As soon as we saw what the explosion of so many torpedoes did to the aft compartments, we became convinced that it was a no-survivors type of tragedy. Experts say some submariners in Compartment Nine might have lasted 4 or 6 hours. Eight, tops. It means that there were no hopes anymore at 1700 hours on August 12.

Question: Do you have a singular hypothesis?

Vyacheslav Popov: There are two hypotheses the governmental commission is working on: collision with another submarine and explosion of a torpedo. It may well turn out, however, that we will be able to draw the final conclusions next summer when Compartment One or whatever remains of it will have been lifted.

Question: Collisions at sea: shall we ascribe them to blind chance?

Vyacheslav Popov: The collision itself is always brought about by chance but I think it is not a mistake to say this is only logical. You cannot sea underwater, you know, you can only hear. Hydrological conditions are different in different areas; the speed of sound varies depending on the depth, temperature, etc. That is why you can hear a submarine and track it’s maneuvering by the noise it is making and hey, presto, all of a sudden the noise disappears, either because the submarine executed a maneuver or because the hydrological conditions changed. You can never tell. The distances at which you can hear submarines differ too. More often than not, it may imply the possibility of collision particularly when the other submarine does not hear you and proceeds with its maneuvering. And of course, some collisions are caused by human error.

Question: But the Baton Rouge rammed the Kostroma in Russian territorial waters.

Vyacheslav Popov: Yes, by the rules that exist now. It makes it the trespasser. But the Americans do not think so.

Question: Why?

Instead of answering, Popov sketched how everything happened with the Baton Rouge and the Kostroma… Peninsula Rybachy on the left, isle of Kildin on the right. Under the international rules, if the distance between two elements of the continent does not exceed 24 miles, a straight line is drawn in between, and the territorial waters are counted from it (plus 12 miles). “That’s how we see it,” the admiral said and connected Rybachy and Kildin with a straight line. In truth, the distance between them is greater than 24 miles, and the Americans refuse to draw straight lines there. They consider Russia to have 12 miles wide territorial waters from the peninsula and the isle. “That’s the triangle,” Popov said, “the Americans say they can enter.”

Vyacheslav Popov: Remember the maps we’ve known from childhood, with a huge triangle with the Northern Pole at the top and our borders descending from it? The world does not see matters this way. Only 12 miles from the coast are considered Russian territorial waters, and the rest is viewed as international waters open for all ships.

Question: Has any other country of the polar zone laid claims to the territorial waters up to the pole?

Vyacheslav Popov: Only Russia.

Question: We have a legal collision here then?

Vyacheslav Popov: This is our weak point. In any case, we cannot forbid foreign ships to enter the area. There are lots of similar moot points in the sea. There is the so-called Grey Zone Russia has been arguing over with Norway. With Norway, however, we have at least normal negotiations…

It follows that it is no single state that should be blamed for the chaos bordering on Cold War at sea. A great deal of states are involved. Everything was more or less all right when Moscow could compete with others on equal footing. No more. The Russian Navy is only one-third of the former Soviet one. Its reduction affected our ability to send ships overseas. Russia is lucky to be able to defend its own waters. As a result, the states that retained the ability to act from the position of strength are gradually getting used to the idea that they own the entire ocean. It is the winner who benefits from emphasizing Russia’s part of the blame for all sorts of grey zones and so on. It is easier for it to force its own rules of conduct underwater this way. The United States never hesitated to officially recognize that two American and one British submarines were lose to the area of maneuvers in August 2002. It even identified its ships as USS Toledo and USS Memphis and said the submarines were 200 miles from the area the Kursk died in. It follows that they did not collide with anybody, did not get in anybody’s way, and did not send Mayday from the area even though the Kursk itself could not send it. Russian defense minister’s request of examination of USS Memphis was met with a categorical “no.” Indeed, what would the strong need alibis for?

Yes, the Kursk certainly struck trouble. No matter which of the three existing hypotheses turns out to be correct, the governmental commission had twelve hypotheses at first, it is clear that everything is possible out at sea when sailing rules on the surface are ignored and sailing rules underwater do not even exist.

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