By Vladimir Malevannyi Nezavisimoe Voennoye Obozrenie, No. 29, August 10, 2001, p. 2

The Kursk has become another test of glasnost, in which the media is currently losing out to military censorship. For a whole year, the Kremlin has been speaking in hints, code-phrases, cryptic leaks of misinformation. A regime of secrecy has been imposed by the government and special services (WPS summary).

Reports about the Kursk submarine disaster remains contradictory; all versions of events seem like a combination of truth, fabrication, and misinformation. In his television interview last year, President Putin didn’t tell people about the circumstances of the sinking – instead, he presented one version of the progress of the search. Despite the carefully verified text of his speech, the style resembled Boris Yeltsin’s “38 snipers” story five years earlier.

Thus, at the start, monitors of the progress of Northern Fleet exercises in the Barents Sea, at an unspecified time on August 12, 2000, lost track of the K-141 nuclear-powered missile-carrying underwater cruiser. After that, the actions taken by naval commanders made it possible for the Kursk to be found on the coastal shelf off Murmansk within seven hours rather than the “sanctioned” (said the president, without a blink) seven days. Next: according to official reports, some traces of the presence of unidentified NATO submarines were detected in the area of the exercises.

The legal conflict over this incident went almost unreported in the media. The main question to which the authorities should have provided an immediate answer was: “What happened?” The questions of “how”, “why”, and “what do we do now” were secondary. But truth has been unlawfully restricted by the regime of secrecy imposed by the government and special services.

Although many versions of events have been presented, all of them are based on speculative assumptions. No facts at all were released about the situation on board the Kursk, even though the submarine was examined by two bathyscaphes within 24 hours of the sinking. Unfortunately, television viewers saw only some unidentified sections of submarines, mostly computer models. Such footage, without any indication of where or when it was recorded, cannot be called evidence. Given such methods, when everyone is making judgments based on theories, support can be found for any version of events at all. By the standards of criminal law, any result of such an investigation would be open to doubt, since it’s possible that important evidence at the scene of the disaster may have been destroyed during this time, or the facts might have been adjusted to suit someone’s interests. In theory, the investigators of the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office (MMPO) have to take all such circumstances into account. However, it seems they found themselves in an ambiguous position.

There are well-known procedures for “muffling” any versions of events other than those tacitly endorsed by higher-ups: involve the special services in the investigation, labelling it as very important or top secret. The special services were attached to the Kursk disaster investigation right from the start. President Putin was the first to announce that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had been entrusted with “operative accompaniment” duties for the criminal case. But who will eventually make use of what the counter-intelligence agents and criminal investigators produce, and for what purposes?

There is legislation that regulates operative investigational activities of the special services when they provide support for an investigation by prosecutors. Strictly speaking, the special services ought to stop their investigation activities if the prosecutors are handling a case based on the same evidence or incident; this is confirmed by the Duma deputies who passed the legislation. At the same time, there should be no operative development, or any other “accompaniment” of anyone involved in the case, at the initiative of the special services – not even the respected FSB. In practice, there is no consistent approach here. It may seem paradoxical at first, but not a single witness statement has yet been released in relation to the Kursk case.

Since the scene of the sinking was visited by Russian, British, and Norwegian divers, they ought to be called as witnesses. The investigation is obliged to consider allegations that the Kursk crew were deliberately abandoned to their fate; not to mention checking compliance with other points in the Marine Shipping Code, other laws, and international agreements. All these requirements are specified by law.

Signals from the Kursk and other Russian and foreign vessels were detected by satellite and ground equipment of the GRU (foreign intelligence), and the radars of FAPSI, marine border guards, anti-air defense, and an Air Force base on the Kola Peninsula. Not to mention all the information collected by the Navy itself. Nevertheless, apparently even the defense minister didn’t know (and still doesn’t know?) why the Kursk sank. And who is going to question or interrogate the president, as well as the former and current defense ministers, as witnesses in the case? An MMPO investigator, or an FSB operative?

By the end of August 2000, it became clear that the Kursk disaster case would be sunk in the depths of confidentiality and military secrets.

The commission headed by Ilya Klebanov was looking at only five theories:

1. collision between the Kursk and a foreign submarine

2. collision with a Russian supply vessel

3. collision of all three vessels

4. accident on board the Kursk related to testing new torpedoes

5. sabotage

Deputy Prime Minister Klebanov subsequently said these had been narrowed down to a “final” list of three theories. But this was just his personal opinion, since the commission’s findings have not been released or included in the investigation.

Observers drew attention to obvious discrepancies in the work of the commission, of which Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov is also a member. If even the commission doesn’t know whether new torpedoes were being tested, or whether another vessel collided with the Kursk, all this starts to look like a conspiracy among the military, or even an attempt to blackmail the public and the president… The only likely conclusion so far is that everything has been pre-scheduled and is being reliably implemented. The nation’s leaders have known the whole story for a long time.

Experts who are modelling various versions of the disaster are wasting their effort: even the timing of explosions recorded by seismic monitoring stations abroad doesn’t correspond with the time when the Northern Fleet and the Air Force were carrying out joint exercises. NATO isn’t confirming or denying that American or British submarines were in the area closed off for war games. Even general information, not categorized as a military or state secret, is being kept quiet.

Assertion: most of the Kursk crew realized at the last moment that commanders on shore had ordered that they should be abandoned; this is the only thing the president doesn’t know about the disaster – after all, the president was in an “acoustic Foros”. If this assertion is challenged, another must be accepted: the whole crew died almost immediatly – as the Navy Commander-in-Chief and the deputy prime minister already said, albeit belatedly. But this version of events has been conclusively disproved by the discovery of notes written by crew members. Moreover, there have been no such cases in the history of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet.

The picture of what happened on board the Kursk isn’t becoming any more objective, even after the publication of dozens of theories. This is not a technical problem; it’s purely to do with information. It involves the right of the citizenry to regularly monitor what the government is doing. This is impossible without reliable information.

Both in Russia and the United States, it is forbidden to use nuclear-powered submarine for purposes other than specified. This includes training maneuvers in shallow water. Counter-intelligence already knows the name of the person who was in charge of planning the exercises which violated regulations and rules for the use of Antei-class submarines; but the MMPO does not yet know this name. The secret services have no legal grounds for “accompanying” the investigation, but they do have state funding for the media battles which are “accompanying” the investigation. For a whole year, the Kremlin has been speaking in hints, code-phrases, cryptic leaks of misinformation.

In his speeches to the Duma on September 15 and to the Federation Council on September 27, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov confirmed that his commission had a “technical-organizational” status and that evaluating theories was outside its scope. Officially. But Klebanov had no problems finding this incursion into the legal field of the judiciary acceptable.

Experts confirm that officially, according to the law, Klebanov’s “commission” doesn’t exist. The commission was set up as a Cabinet working group to study the causes of the disaster. The investigation should be carried out by the prosecutors, in accordance with procedural standards. However, on November 7 Ilya Klebanov appeared on television to display copies of the notes written by crew members – it was unclear how they had come to be in his hands, since they were part of the top-secret criminal case opened by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Moreover, the original text of these messages still hasn’t been published.

And a final important point: around two years ago, a Kursk-type submarine of the Northern Fleet sank under circumstances which have not been fully explained. Journalists know that the source of this information was the FSB counter-terrorism directorate. What do the two disasters have in common? How long will it take the “international brigades” of divers to raise the front compartment of the Kursk, which is meant to be cut away from the rest of the submarine by September? Will the remaining 106 bodies be found? What are the exact radiation levels on board the Kursk? Getting a reliable answer to any such question being asked by the public is now more difficult than it was to learn the details of the Chernobyl disaster 15 years ago. The Kursk has become another test of glasnost, in which the media is currently losing out to military censorship.