END OF THE KURSK: TRAGIC ACCIDENT OR NATURAL CONSEQUENCE?

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The catastrophe of the nuclear submarine Kursk has moved all of Russia. During a meeting of the Security Council on August 11, top-ranking officials and generals discussed the current condition of the Armed Forces and outlined prospects of their development. One day later the submarine sank, demonstrating the “highly critical condition of the country’s military organization,” of which the military had spoken during speeches made during the meeting of the Security Council. There is no doubt that the catastrophe of the submarine is a result of negative trends conditioned by under-financing of the Armed Forces. Many observers agree on this point. However, officials and military are trying to prove that the end of the Kursk was an accident caused by a collision with an external object. Before the collision the Kursk was allegedly preparing a torpedo launch within the framework of the military exercises. This caused explosions in the nose part of the submarine.

Some Russian media experts say that the culprit may have been an American submarine. In support of this theory, they point out that the US nuclear submarine Memphis, which has been operating in the area of the Barents Sea military exercises, is currently in a repair dock of a Norwegian port.

The US submarine Memphis belongs to the newest generation of large missile-carrying submarines. Although Memphis is in the repair dock, the Pentagon insists that neither of the two submarines that have been patrolling the area of catastrophe during the Russian military exercises has to do with the Kursk catastrophe. NATO officials say that any alliance submarines on combat patrol can come to bases of a patrolled area for emergency or maintenance repair, and that this is nothing unusual.

Vladimir Navrotsky, a representative of the PR service of the Northern Fleet, to some extent confirms that it was not the American submarine which caused the catastrophe. Navrotsky denied that there were fragments of a foreign submarine near the Kursk. He added, “Such statements are absolute lies.” However, he confirmed that a collision of the submarine with an external object remained the main version of the catastrophe.

Answering the question why Russian ships had failed to find a mysterious object, Navrotsky said that the object would have been much smaller than the submarine and much faster than the Kursk. Memphis, a large submarine, does not fit the profile.

Thus, the version of the American submarine causing the catastrophe of Kursk turns out to be at odds with facts.

The Norwegian military says that there were no signs that the Kursk had been involved in a collision of Kursk. Norwegian officials say that the most likely cause of the catastrophe was the explosion of a torpedo or some other weapon aboard the submarine. We can trust them, because the Norwegians have thoroughly studied the nature of the damage to the submarine’s hull. The version of collision with a large object, “is a domestic propaganda of the Russians,” says Rear Admiral Skorgen, commander of the Norwegian rescue team.

If international rescue forces raise the submarine, the Russian Navy Command will be unable to hide the real reason of the Kursk disaster. Meanwhile, the majority of independent Russian military experts already say that the catastrophe was caused by non-observance of safety measures, poor training of the sailors, and the general insufficient financing of the Armed Forces. Mikhail Khodarenok, a former officer of the General Staff and current military observer, explained this version in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

American experts speak about the same reasons. Recently US Defense Secretary William Cohen said that the Kursk tragedy occurred because Russia had no resources to maintain combat material and to train the servicemen for. Cohen says that these circumstances should serve as additional proof to Americans of the need to increase American defense spending, especially in the training of servicemen.

Russia also wants to boost defense spending. During a briefing in the House of the Government on August 22, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin announced that the 2001 budget would assign 206 billion rubles for defense needs. This is almost 60 billion rubles more than in 2000. However, this sum equals just $7 billion, or 2.65% of the Russian GDP. This is not enough. According to a presidential decree, at least 3.5% of the GDP should be spent on defense. Under-financing may be one reason the Russian Armed Forces keep degrading.

Meanwhile, according to military sources, experts are currently studying the possibility that the submarine may have been diverted. The Northern Fleet Commander even said that he, “would like to look into the eyes of the person who organized all this.” LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also said that the sinking of the submarine could be a link in the chain of events happening in Chechnya, Central Asia, and the terrorist acts in Moscow. The energetic course of the Armed Forces that Putin has chosen is not beneficial for the West. We cannot rule out that the Kursk catastrophe was “organized” to hinder this process. Reducing the Strategic Missile Forces, Putin wants to spend a part of the spare money to develop the Navy in order to confirm Russia’s status as a maritime power. In November 1999, when Putin was still Prime Minister, he attended a meeting of the Navy Military Council that summed up results of the Navy’s combat training 1999. Putin was the first prime minister of post-Soviet Russia who took part in such a council. Within a little more than a year, Putin actually visited all fleets (except for the Caspian Flotilla), took part in sea voyages twice, and personally observed the actions of the sailors, highly appreciating their skills. On March 4, he issued a decree approving the “Fundamentals of Russian policy in the naval activities for the period until 2010.” These fundamentals will be a part of the naval doctrine that will be improved and approved this year. On July 25, Putin was present at the defense of the candidate’s thesis of Navy Commander and Admiral of the Navy Vladimir Kuroedov dedicated to the problems of formation of the integrated naval strategy of Russia. Witnesses say that the President was satisfied with what he had heard, and that the scientific council, with the support of the President, proposed granting Kuroedov a doctoral degree instead of a candidate’s degree. In Russia, a scholar must usual write and defend two dissertations to receive a doctoral degree.

We cannot rule out that the end of the Kursk seriously undermined Kuroedov’s reputation in the eyes of the President. At present it is difficult to say which conclusions Putin will make, but Kuroedov’s possible career will be suspended for a long time.

Thus, the events currently taking place in Russia could seriously spoil the image of President Putin himself. For the first time the events surrounding the Kursk submarine showed Putin to be at a loss. Information about the rescue operation was contradictory. Authorities have failed to tell the whole truth about the catastrophe. When it turned out that the Navy did not have a single deep-sea diver left and that Russia had to turn to Norwegian specialists for help, public saw the tragic character of the extremely critical condition of the Russian Navy. What can the President do in such a situation? Will defense expenditures be radically increased? The hard line and the intent to revive the country’s naval power that Putin has been demonstrating enable observers to conclude that Putin may conduct a partial militarization of the country. On June 30, he told journalists at a press conference in Baltiysk, “To make Russia a prosperous and self-sufficient country, we are obliged to–and we will–pay due attention to the Navy.”

According to sources in the Kremlin, at the August 11 Security Council meeting it was decided that a fundamentally new naval nuclear missile system would be organized in the Navy by the end of 2001. This system will consist of missile carrying nuclear submarines of the fourth generation of the Yury Dolgoruky type, and new compact strategic ballistic missiles. By 2005, the Navy will receive new ships like the multipurpose submarine Severodvinsk, the patrol ship Novik, a few diesel submarines for the Black Sea and Baltic Sea fleets. Russian ships have recently begun to be actively present in important sea areas. Thus, Russia is preparing a voyage of a group of ships from the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets to the Mediterranean Sea.

Meanwhile, according to officers of the General Staff, plans for Navy development can be accomplished only with stable financing. So far the resources are missing.

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