Admiral's Tangled Legacy

President Vladimir Putin has ousted naval chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and replaced him with his deputy, Admiral Vladimir Masorin. At the same time, the Kremlin announced that several Western naval officers have been awarded medals for helping salvage the AS-28 minisub near Kamchatka last month.

Kuroyedov had been naval chief since 1997 and will be remembered mostly for his part in the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, in which all 118 men on board were killed.

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The Kursk sank during war games in the Barents Sea, and Navy top brass at first insisted that the disaster was caused by an accidental collision or a deliberate torpedo attack by a foreign sub spying in the region.

Just before the Kursk tragedy, Moscow was rife with speculation that Kuroyedov, whom Putin openly favored, would be promoted to the post of defense minister. The exercises in the Barents Sea, so it was said, were intended to impress Putin so that he would choose Kuroyedov.

The naval command lied to the public while the Kursk tragedy was unfolding, attempting to cover up the extent of the damage, while at the same time desperately looking for evidence of U.S. foul play that would have vindicated our admirals.

Kuroyedov several times publicly announced that he had solid evidence that the Americans had hit and killed the Kursk. This view was predominant within the Defense Ministry and intelligence community. This wave of anti-Americanism did not, however, sit easily with Putin's plans to form a friendly relationship with newly elected President George W. Bush.

The Putin-Bush alliance became public in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the resulting war on terrorism, but the Kremlin had been working to make the shift for some time before, and official claims that the Americans attacked and sank the Kursk could not have come at a worse time. Putin therefore charged Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov with conducting an independent investigation into the Kursk disaster.

Although the relatives of the Kursk sailors and many other Russian citizens believe that questions about the causes of the disaster and about what went wrong during the failed rescue attempt were not properly answered, for the Kremlin and the military and intelligence communities the only true important issue was possible U.S. involvement.

Ustinov in the end announced that there was no evidence of any U.S. foul play. Putin quoted this finding when the Kremlin in December 2001 disciplined and ousted from military service 14 high-ranking naval officials for mismanagement of the exercise in which the Kursk sank. Kuroyedov kept his post but lost his chance of becoming defense minister.

The policy of cooperation with the United States that Putin vigorously defended during the Kursk saga was based on the assumption that in exchange the West would accept Russian domination of the CIS.

The deal did not work out. Democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, which Russian politicians claim were sponsored by the the United States and the European Union, were seen in Moscow as being unfriendly to the Putin regime.

Last week, an official U.S. delegation headed by Senators Richard Lugar and Barack Obama was locked up in the Perm airport building for three hours after they visited several Russian nuclear facilities. The border guard, which is overseen by the Federal Security Service, wanted to inspect the delegation's DC-9 jet, but was refused permission by the delegation.

The Foreign Ministry later apologized, and in the West the incident was believed to have been a misunderstanding or an act by a zealous local official. But it is difficult to believe that it could have been a chance occurrence, or that the Kremlin was in no way party to what happened.

On Sunday, Channel One in its weekly "Vremya" prime-time news program broadcast a blistering Cold War-style attack on Lugar, who was described as an "American spy" and an "enemy of Russia," who had been instrumental in organizing last fall's Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Kuroyedov has finally been ousted, but the conflict in the Kremlin over the direction of Russia's foreign policy is as bad today as it was in the aftermath of the Kursk tragedy.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.