After a nine-day rescue operation that transfixed the world, the Russian government announced Monday that all 118 crew members of the downed submarine Kursk were dead. An international rescue team discovered that all the compartments in the vessel were flooded; it is likely that almost all of the crew members were dead shortly after the sub hit the sea floor. The accident has revealed that the worst habits of the Soviet era survived the death of that regime. Denial and an almost pathological reliance on secrecy continue to rule in Moscow. They may not have added to the death toll in this case, but they are certain to have tragic effects in the future.
Since the world learned of the accident involving the Kursk, a 13,000-ton nuclear submarine that is the largest and newest vessel in the Russian fleet, the information that has been released has been sketchy and contradictory. The accident was revealed last Monday. Initial reports said it had occurred the day before; later, the government admitted it had happened on the Saturday. First, the government reported that there had been a minor technical problem, not a catastrophic incident.
Hope was sustained by reports that the sub had “glided” to the sea floor, that there had been radio contact with the crew and that banging sounds were heard from inside the hull. Only this week, did the government reveal that there had been no contact since last Monday. Since the sub apparently flooded shortly after the accident — whatever it was — the other reports must all be considered fabrications.
The government’s mishandling of the incident has spurred anger throughout Russia. The families of the victims have been twice tortured: once by fears of the fate awaiting their loved ones and then by their government’s unwillingness to offer them hope or solace as the tragedy played out. Their anger has been compounded by Moscow’s unwillingness to ask for foreign assistance. The government waited four days before turning to Britain and Norway for aid. By then, it was too late.
The consequences of the Kursk disaster are difficult to foresee, but they could be large. The Russian military, once the pride of the country, has been tarnished by arrogance and ineptitude. The scale of its inadequacies — the budget shortfalls, the poor training and equipment — have been made plain. Since national service is still compulsory for all Russian youth, every Russian family must fear another Kursk-like accident.
President Vladimir Putin has been the target of public anger as well. Failing to cut his vacation short was a mistake. Opinion polls show his popularity has been hurt by the accident, but the Russian people seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They prefer to blame the Defense Ministry. Nonetheless, the president has been warned. The limitations of his “strong man” strategy have been made manifest — especially when he relies on the military to back up that image. The episode has also shown his need to polish his PR skills.
There is another explanation for Mr. Putin’s reluctance to get involved, however. Defense officials are fighting over the future size and structure of the Russian military. The battle spilled into the open recently, when seven generals aligned with the old guard were dismissed. According to this interpretation, the Kursk fiasco has discredited the traditionalists and could spur further reform.
This is not just a Russian concern. The entire world has a stake in the size, safety and security of the Russian military arsenal. Large-scale national military exercises, like those in which the Kursk was participating, are an anomaly in the post-Cold War era. Russia should join the large multinational efforts, that focus, among other things, on rescue operations.
One such operation will begin soon. The Russians must raise the Kursk from the sea floor, both to ascertain what happened and to remove the nuclear fuel cores from the sub’s two reactors. Vessels monitoring the sea near the submarine have reported no radiation leakage. The reactors are supposed to shut down automatically in the case of an accident. Russian officials say they did, but after all that has transpired in the last week, that claim is suspect. This effort is expected to cost more than $100 million, a sum that is considerably beyond Russia’s means. It has asked for help. The international community should pitch in. Maybe then Moscow will learn that its stubborn pride is pointless and dangerous — to itself and to others.
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