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David Miller: The Sinking Of The Kursk

David Miller Online. The Sinking of the Kursk. Old Attitudes Die Hard.

The efforts to recover the bodies of the 118 Russian sailors, who died when the submarine Kursk sank on August 12, are a reminder that above all else that this incident was a human tragedy. This was emphasised by the discovery of a note on the body of 27-year-old Lieutenant – Colonel Dmitry Kolesnikov to his wife. The discovery of the letter raises the question as to whether this tragedy need have been as severe as that which eventuated.

The questions as to why the Kursk sank while on exercises in the Barents Sea remain unanswered. There is the theory that the submarine collided with another vessel in the area, however no other wreckage was discovered in the area, which discounts this. What appears more credible is that a misfiring torpedo engine caused two conventional warheads to explode at the front of the vessel. These explosions caused fire to break out followed by flooding throughout the ship.

In the chaos that immediately followed the explosions, fire and subsequent flooding, it appears that 23 sailors made their way to the rear of the submarine. While they were out of reach of the fire they had no means of reaching the surface. It was during this period that Colonel Kolesnikov wrote his message to his wife and in doing so cast fresh doubts as to the Russian military’s version of what happened that day.

The explanations concerning the events and timing of the sinking continue to vary two and a half months later. American, Norwegian and Russian vessels in the area picked up the blast at 11.30 that morning on sonar, which was followed by a second explosion, less than three minutes later. However the Russian military account of what occurred is different. Northern Fleet Command has never confirmed the timing of the first explosion, but claims the second blast occurred as the submarine hit the bottom of the seabed, and later went onto claim that by this stage the damage and casualties had already occurred.



The Russian Navy initially claimed the damage was limited to technical faults and that the crew was alive. The navy claimed that contact was maintained until 11.30 that evening and it was not until two days after the accident that Russians finally admitted that all contact with the Kursk had been lost.

Within this two-day period valuable time was lost in which international assistance could have been deployed to the Barents Sea. As a result of this, much criticism was levelled at President Vladimir Putin and senior military officials for the ambiguity that surrounded their version of what happened on that ill- fated voyage and for the delay in asking the international community for assistance in the matter. When the Norwegians and British rescue teams arrived in the Barents Sea following unsuccessful Russian attempts to reach the ship, time had run out.

It is doubtful that all 118 sailors could have been saved from the Kursk, given the severity of the explosions and damage the vessel incurred. It would even be difficult to say for certain that the 23 men who made their way towards the rear of the submarine could have been rescued given the time it would have taken to deploy international rescue teams and the bad weather conditions that hindered earlier attempts. Nevertheless the accusation still lingers over Mr Putin and his senior military officials that the response was not quick enough and that a sense of pride prevented the offer of overseas assistance being taken.

The sinking of the Kursk has dealt a severe blow to this sense of pride among the Russian military and political establishments. This pride in the Russian armed forces is a hangover from the Soviet Union, when Russia and fellow Soviet states where a global military power. However since 1991, Russia has slipped from this mantle and although it still commands a sizeable military force with world- class hardware such as the MIG- 29 fighter and Hind helicopter gunship, the ability of Russian power projection has shrunken remarkably.

The principle cause of this is the scarce defence budget that has severely impacted upon the Russian armed forces. The navy, for example, now operates at one- third the capacity as its Soviet predecessor and has only 75 deployable submarines out of 180 a decade ago and operates only 1 heavy aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

However what has not declined is the Cold War mentality that still lingers in the military and political establishments in Moscow. Russia still insists that it has a strong voice in global affairs and its feelings and policies are considered when organisations such as NATO undertake expansion or operations. The Kursk was a post Cold War vessel. Commissioned in 1995, it was one of the newest vessels to enter into service in the Russian navy, and only underwent a refit in 1998, which saw the installation of the new torpedo engines. To lay the blame at outmoded equipment is not an option in this case, hence it is the crucial delay in getting international help to the scene that meant a possible rescue mission became one of only recovery.

This lingering mentality was shown to be still prevalent following the Kursk sinking and this combined with a lack of state of the art technology and money means that there is little to prevent a disaster such as the Kursk sinking happening again. Along with a much-needed financial injection into its armed forces to replace outdated equipment, Russia must also work to change some out dated attitudes and beliefs.


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