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Kursk Anniversary: Submarine Disaster Was Putin’s ’First Lie’

13.08.15 | Inna Denisova, Robert Coalson

An undated photo of the ill-fated Kursk submarine at her mooring at a base of Vidyayevo, Russia.

www.rferl.org

Public anger over the botched operation to rescue the crew of the sunken submarine Kursk was a nasty wake-up call for Vladimir Putin in 2000, the first year of his presidency. But 15 years later, Russians are far less critical of the government’s response -- a change a leading pollster says reflects the power of state TV.

August 12, 2015

Fifteen years after the dramatic sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine with the loss 118 lives in August 2000, lawyer Boris Kuznetsov sees the tragedy as a turning point for modern Russia.

The Kursk disaster and its aftermath, Kuznetsov says, was President Vladimir Putin’s "first lie."

"The lies began with the sinking of the Kursk, " Kuznetsov says. "When the Kursk sank, the government began interfering with the legal and law-enforcement systems. The government began gathering all the mass media under its control. The entire process of undermining democracy in Russia, in many regards, began with this."

Kuznetsov, 67, represented the families of 55 of the drowned Kursk seamen. Now he has political asylum in the United States. The Russian government has opened a criminal case against him and issued an international arrest warrant for him. He says the charges -- which accuse him of revealing state secrets because he demonstrated to a Russian court that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was illegally wiretapping a member of parliament -- were intended to prevent him from carrying out his high-profile legal work.

Indeed, Russia was a different country when the Kursk sank on August 12, 2000, during a massive naval exercise in the Barents Sea. It was just a few months after Putin began his first term as president. National television was controlled by oligarchs and had feisty relations with the government.

In October 2000, prominent television journalist Sergei Dorenko ran a one-hour special on the Kursk tragedy on Russia’s national ORT television, then controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky. After enumerating the government’s failures in its handling of the disaster, Dorenko ended the piece with this conclusion:

"The story of the Kursk is not finished. We have only raised the very first questions and conclusions. The main conclusion is that the government does not respect any of us -- and so it is lying. And the main thing is that the government treats us this way only because we allow it to."

When a visibly rattled Putin met with the wives and families of Kursk seamen on August 22, 2000, no one was afraid to scream at him and accuse him of incompetence or worse:

That encounter, Kuznetsov says, may have been "the worst moment" of Putin’s life -- and he immediately set out to make sure he would never face anything like it again.

Kuznetsov is marking the 15th anniversary by issuing the second edition of his book on the case. The volume -- titled It Sank, which is what Putin famously answered when U.S. journalist Larry King asked him what happened to the Kursk -- details what Kuznetsov sees as the government’s culpability in the tragedy, as well as the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent him from finding out the facts of the case.

The government’s 133-volume report on the incident remains classified and only a four-page summary was issued to the public in 2002.

Kuznetsov dismisses all the conspiracy theories about the Kursk disaster -- that the submarine collided with another sub or a surface ship, that it was sunk by a NATO submarine or by "friendly fire" from another Russian ship participating in the exercise. 

"[Putin] was obligated to listen to the experts and the reports of the commanders and the reports of the naval command. ... And he did not, " says lawyer Boris Kuznetsov.

The acoustic evidence and the damage to the Kursk -- part of which was recovered about 14 months after the sinking -- show convincingly, he says, that the fuel of a torpedo that was being prepared for launch exploded and that the blast led, two minutes later, to a massive explosion of the warheads of many of the 10 torpedoes on board. The second blast was so large that it was picked up by seismographs across Europe and in Alaska.

Nonetheless, Kuznetsov says, the Russian government and military still have much to answer for, beginning with Putin himself. As commander in chief of the armed forces, Kuznetsov says, Putin was obligated to know the fatal naval exercise -- which was the largest in Russia’s post-Soviet history -- inside and out.

"He was obligated to listen to the experts and the reports of the commanders and the reports of the naval command. He was obligated to do all this, " Kuznetsov says. "And he did not."

If he had done so, Kuznetsov concludes, he would have known, for example, that the Kursk had never before fired this kind of torpedo under any circumstances. He might also have known that the mechanism for attaching a rescue vehicle to the Kursk’s escape hatch had never been tested on the Kursk. Many experts have concluded that the Russian Navy’s attempt to open the hatch failed because the Kursk had a special antiacoustic coating that prevented the mechanism from establishing a watertight seal.

In addition, Kuznetsov says, a sonar operator aboard the battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky identified and reported an explosion at 11:28 a.m. on August 12. He located the explosion at the exact position where the Kursk was known to be.

However, nothing happened.

INFOGRAPHIC: The Tragedy Of The Kursk (click to enlarge)

"What should the commander of the ship and the leaders of the exercises have done?" Kuznetsov says. "They should have identified the explosion and determined where it came from and what caused it. They did not do this."

Instead, the clock began ticking on the 23 seamen who survived the initial disaster and managed to barricade themselves in the stricken submarine’s ninth compartment.

"The Kursk was declared to be in trouble only at 23:30, " Kuznetsov says. "That is, 12 hours had passed. Those 12 hours were lost time."

Naval commanders assured Putin that they could handle a rescue attempt without accepting the offers of foreign assistance that came in from Britain, Norway, the United States, and others. Putin only accepted such offers five days after the disaster.

When commanders made such assurances, Kuznetsov says, they knew that the deep-submergence rescue vehicles had never been tested in conjunction with the Kursk.

"The fact is that these [vehicles] were created especially for use with various types of submarines, including for the Kursk, " Kuznetsov says. "But they were never, not once, tested with it -- not during sea trials, not during the submarine’s [four years of] service, and not during the preparation for these exercises."

No one was ever held responsible for the Kursk disaster. Kuznetsov said Putin made "a political decision" to protect Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of the Navy. Kuroyedov offered to resign over the incident, but that offer was rejected and he was allowed to retire in 2005.

Putin removed a total of 13 senior officers, including Northern Fleet submarine commander Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsov, but all of them were soon given prestigious positions in government or state-controlled businesses.