While many questions remain unanswered about the recent sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, the disaster has exposed some of the grave problems that afflict Russia today. It attracted much attention worldwide because it caused many people to ponder the life-or-death situation that the Kursk crew presumably faced.
The cold reality is that national security is of primary importance to a state. In dealing with the crisis, Russian military authorities placed greater importance on military secrets and national pride than on the crew’s lives, but they should not be criticized for that alone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken the brunt of criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the crisis, but he is likely to use the disaster as an opportunity to build a stronger nation and boost Russia’s military power.
The disaster and its consequences showed that Russia was more willing than before to provide information about itself. Nevertheless, Russia’s tight controls on information reflect the nation’s instinctive preference for secrecy. I feel that the disaster stemmed from deep-rooted problems troubling the nation. A decline in the morale and skills of Russian military personnel, which accompanied a drastic cutback in the Russian military budget after the Cold War, is likely to have contributed to the disaster.
In the past several years, Russia’s military forces have been hit by a series of mysterious accidents. The explosion of an ammunition depot in the Russian Far East is among the major accidents that should never have happened. Russian soldiers fighting in the Chechen conflict reportedly have much lower morale and skills than did the once-mighty Soviet forces.
An increasing number of young Russians are reportedly dodging national service. The Kursk crew was among the Russian military elite, and the submarine’s sinking reflects the sorry state of the Russian military. It is likely that the problem was only the tip of the iceberg.
Submarine fleets have taken on increasing military importance since the Cold War. The United States and Russia have been cutting back their submarine forces under strategic arms-limitation agreements. However, other nations have been building up their submarine fleets because they prize their secretiveness, high survivability in warfare and usefulness in retaliatory attacks. Submarine operations are increasing worldwide.
Since the Cold War, the Russian Navy has expanded its operations in the Pacific, as well as in the North Atlantic. Of the four Soviet Navy fleets in 1988, the 845-ship Pacific fleet was the largest, and included two aircraft carriers and 140 submarines — among them 75 nuclear subs. The Russian Navy’s Pacific fleet now has no more aircraft carriers and only 30 submarines, including 25 nuclear subs. The submarines have curtailed their operations, and only conduct limited drills in the Sea of Okhotsk and seas around Vladivostok.
The fact that Russia asked Britain and Norway for help in rescuing the Kursk crew showed that the Russian Navy has lost its pride. The Soviet Navy would have preferred to avoid asking for international help in order both to protect its secrets and to maintain its image.
I believe, however, that Russia and NATO will promote cooperation to help save troubled submarines. In Asia, there has been little international cooperation in similar endeavors.
Since the Cold War ended, Japan and Russia have been promoting talks on security and defense. The two nations signed an agreement on preventing marine accidents during Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Tokyo in 1993. Since then, they have conducted annual talks on implementing the agreement. Since 1996, Japan and Russia have been exchanging visits by military ships. This month, an escort ship of the Maritime Self-Defense Force will visit Petropavlovsk in the Russian Far East.
Japan and Russia have conducted joint drills for searching and rescuing ships and aircraft in distress since 1998. No submarines have taken part in the drills, however.
Japan, meanwhile, plans to join the U.S., South Korea and Singapore this October in joint exercises in the Western Pacific for rescuing submarines in trouble. It will be the first time for Japan to take part in the drills. Russian submarines have not participated in the exercises.
In 1993, the Russian Navy dumped nuclear waste from a scrapped nuclear submarine into the Sea of Japan. Since then, Japan has given financial assistance to Russia to help dispose of nuclear waste.
Something similar to the Kursk disaster could occur in waters off Japan, posing a risk of nuclear pollution. Once, an oil spill from a Russian tanker caused serious environmental damage to Japan. International cooperation is essential to secure safety and prevent environmental pollution in the seas off Japan.
Submarines from Russia, Japan, South Korea and China are continuing operations in the Sea of Japan. Their number is likely to increase in coming years. Japan should promote international drills to save troubled submarines and should establish a crisis-management system to prevent environmental pollution by sunken nuclear submarines.
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