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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials Inept at Fudging

The fate of the men aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk has been decided after more than a week of agony. On Monday, Norwegian divers opened a hatch in the stern and found no survivors. The rescue operation was curtailed, but the saga of the Kursk does not end there.

The sinking of the Kursk — a sub the navy deemed "unsinkable" — clearly calls into question the credibility and seaworthiness of its Oscar-II class sister ships and also of our other nuclear subs, including strategic ones.

Click here to read our Special Report on the Kursk Tragedy.

All Russian subs are armed with the same torpedoes. Strategic subs carry large stockpiles of standard and ballistic nuclear missiles. Naval officials say the Kursk was wiped out when its torpedoes detonated after an underwater collision. If one takes such a statement at face value, any Russian nuclear submarine can turn into a fireball at any time, at sea or in harbor, if it is hit accidentally.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has announced that Oscar-II subs will stay in port while the investigation continues. Are the authorities truly planning to investigate what went wrong on the Kursk and who was responsible, or do they simply want to cover up the facts?

Day after day, naval and government officials told the public a different yarn about the sinking of the Kursk, and virtually none of these stories turned out to be true. Last week, officials largely tried to paint a rosy picture, insisting that all aboard the Kursk were alive and that rescuers would soon bring them all to safety.

This week, official accounts changed dramatically: Now officials imply that all or almost all on board the Kursk were killed instantly, that the Kremlin knew the crew was dead, that the rescue operation was actually a sham and that the authorities did nothing wrong when they delayed deployment of foreign rescuers for several days, since it was too late to save anyone anyhow.

The authorities also insist that the detonation of the torpedoes was in fact caused by a collision with some mysterious foreign submarine. The military top brass is obviously trying to tap the xenophobic feelings that are never far beneath the surface in much of the population and indict NATO as the main perpetrator of the Kursk disaster.

Sergeyev has stated this week that the navy observed an "unidentified" sub near the Kursk and sighted "foreign" green/white buoys on the sea surface. "But the unknown sub disappeared before we managed to get to it together with the buoys," lamented Sergeyev. Admiral Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, was more specific and identified the foreign bandit submarine as being "probably British." Some naval officers have told reporters that the sinking of the Kursk was not an accident at all and that "the Kursk was attacked."

Those accusations have been dismissed as "fantasy" by the British Defense Ministry, which says no British naval vessels were anywhere near the Barents Sea at the time. It was also reported last week from the scene of the Kursk disaster that the Russian navy had finally identified the green/white "buoys" Sergeyev had mentioned. They turned out to be heads of cabbage that fell overboard when provisions for sailors were loaded on to the deck of the Russian nuclear cruiser Peter the Great.

What narrative will the authorities be promoting next week? Most likely, they will be telling the world that Russia does not have the money or the expertise to salvage the battered hull of the Kursk, while the public at home will be continuously inundated with "secret details" of a NATO-lead conspiracy that killed the gallant sub.

Of course, bureaucrats worldwide tend to fudge the facts. However, our officials do it so unprofessionally that they constantly embarrass Westerners trying to cooperate with Moscow. Still, there seems to be no alternative but to continue to engage Russia. The state of the reactors aboard the Kursk is still in question, though the navy assures us that they are "safe for 100 years or more." No one has actually seen the Kursk reactors or has any reliable information about them since the ship went down. Norwegian divers report that the hull of the ship was smashed during the accident. It’s possible that the reactors also could have been physically damaged. If they are not leaking now, they may do so soon. And, if that happens, the only thing Russia seems able to do well on its own in an emergency is to spin yarns.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst. Soviet-Style Secrecy Endures in Sub Crisis, The Washington Post, Aug. 19. The Bellona Foundation Russian Naval Forces, The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University Oscar II: Jane's Naval Forces Oscar: Federation of American Scientists Perry Slingsby Systems: the LR5 submarine Kursk Tragedy: A Message Board Save Their Souls: A Message Board on the Kursk Tragedy (in Russian) The Russian Ministry of Defense (in Russian)