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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Still Cagey About the Kursk

The saga of the Kursk nuclear submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 seems to be over, at least officially. The government commission investigating has formally completed its task and filed a report. The Kremlin and the prosecutor general have apparently received copies, but the public has been told very little about the true causes of the disaster that killed 118 men.

In August 2000, President Vladimir Putin publicly vowed that the Russian people would know all about the causes of the Kursk tragedy. But for almost two years officials have been repeating the same peculiar story: The Kursk was sunk by a torpedo exploding on board, or through collision with an unknown vessel or the explosion of a Nazi sea mine floating around since the 1940s.

Of course, it was obvious from the start that an ancient sea mine exploding outside the strongly armored pressure hull of the Kursk could not possibly have instantly sunk a sub as big as an oil tanker and designed to withstand close nuclear blasts.

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A collision with another sub would have inevitably left the intruder (allegedly U.S. or British) also badly damaged at the site of the wreck. Early on, independent experts clearly pointed out the most likely cause: a faulty torpedo.

Now the government commission has finally come to the same conclusion: A 650-mm caliber torpedo fueled with highly volatile hydrogen peroxide was to blame. The fuel ignited, causing a fire that in turn detonated the entire stockpile of armed torpedoes on board -- more than 7 tons of TNT. It's a step in the right direction that the authorities are no longer accusing Western navies of sinking the Kursk, but there are still too many questions remaining unanswered.

In fact, little is known since the report has not been made available to the public. There have been different leaks and comments by various members of the commission to news organizations instead. But the leaks do not fully tally with one another, and it is still not clear what caused the hydrogen peroxide fuel to flare or why the other warheads detonated as a result of fire, even though they are specifically designed not to blast unless first activated?

Independent experts also pointed out that the torpedo malfunction that sank the Kursk was the direct result of sloppy performance and mismanagement by naval personnel either at base, when the torpedo was pumped with hydrogen peroxide fuel, or at sea, where the torpedo was prepared for launch during exercises. It's possible that it was the result of a series of errors, not untypical in the Russian military.

Apparently, the sinister official silence that has followed the end of the Kursk commission's investigation is a continuation of the many falsehoods the navy has circulated for almost two years to cover up the case. Or maybe officials are simply embarrassed to admit in public that the heroic sailors of the Kursk were in fact victims of the negligence of their own colleagues.

It has also been disclosed that the faulty 650-mm peroxide-fueled torpedoes (in use in the navy since the 1970s) were all withdrawn from subs and ships in 2000. This drastic and expensive action is material evidence of the fact that the naval authorities were aware early on of the true cause of the Kursk disaster and that talk about Nazi mines and sneaky U.S. subs was no more than a smokescreen to obscure the facts.

Last year, after an international rescue operation successfully lifted the hull of the Kursk from the sea, Putin ousted several top admirals who were in command of the Northern Fleet at the time of the disaster for mismanagement. Apparently Putin already knew then who the real culprits were.

But the admirals were not ousted in disgrace and soon became important officials in Putin's administration or were appointed members of the Federation Council (something that never happens without a nod from the Kremlin). The commander of the navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, who in the fall of 2000 publicly lied to reporters telling them he had solid evidence that the Kursk had been sunk by a foreign sub is today still commander in chief of the navy.

It seems that high-ranking military officials are never held accountable -- no matter what they do. Officers believe that their chiefs perform efficiently only when there is an opportunity for them to line their pockets. The failure of the Kursk investigation to uncover the truth will surely only further depress morale.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.