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Sunken sub and the 'new' Russia

Official statements on this week's sub disaster have the familiar ring of Soviet-era disinformation.

By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Fred Weir / August 18, 2000


Pessimism is a popular pastime in post-Soviet Russia. But the array of contradictory -- and often completely wrong -- "official" statements about its nuclear-submarine tragedy are reminding many Russians that old habits die hard.

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President Vladimir Putin had promised to pull Russia out of the decade of malaise that has defined the post-Soviet era. But even as oxygen supplies dwindle on board the Kursk and the Russian Navy continues frantic rescue efforts -- joined by the British and Norwegians after Russia refused outside help for five days -- analysts are pondering the event's significance for the "new" Russia.

Virtually every official statement about the tragedy has been changed later or proved wrong, in the same way that bad news was handled during the cold-war Soviet era.

Is this a deliberate coverup, in the old Soviet pattern?

Or is it sheer incompetence preventing Russia's crumbling military from telling the straight story about the failure of one of its most modern nuclear submarines?

"As usual, it is a bit of both," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "This is the Soviet tradition, when political expedience is much more important than the lives of our servicemen. This is the most unpleasant aspect of all.

"The Putin government just seems to return to this pattern of thinking," adds Mr. Piontkovsky, noting Mr. Putin's background as a former KGB agent and the secretive "professional instincts" of security officials everywhere.

"[Putin] is absolutely insensitive to the plight of these people," he adds. "He doesn't feel that something extraordinary is going on."

Initial reports -- spun as truth from named officers or anonymous Navy "sources" -- held that the submarine sank after a collision on Sunday, and several senior officials early on declared the chances of rescue slim.

Untrue reports

Russians then were buoyed by less-than-accurate reports that a rescue unit had been successfully lowered to the submarine, and was providing air and fuel. The crew also was reported to have communicated by banging on the wall of the sub -- a point that American surveillance craft in the region can't confirm.

And, at first, there was the apparent good news that there were no casualties and that two nuclear reactors aboard had been shut down. Officials said the air supply -- first estimated to last only until today -- would not give out completely until Aug. 25.

"As the extent of the human tragedy becomes clearer, the extent of deceit that accompanied the Kursk disaster has also been exposed," notes Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert, writing in the English-language Moscow Times.

"In the past, Russian [and Soviet] officialdom traditionally suppressed facts about nuclear disasters, and bad habits die hard," Mr. Felgenhauer adds. "But the total confusion in statements after the sinking of the Kursk may also be explained by a fit of panic that hit the military-industrial establishment" about compromising submarine and nuclear secrets.

The 500-foot Oscar-class submarine was meant to be unsinkable, like the Titanic, and some analysts say that it is unlikely that the sub would have gone to sea, even for a training exercise, without some nuclear weaponry on board -- though Russian officials have denied its presence.

"I don't think secrets matter so much, because all these 'secrets' are well known to the Americans," says Piontkovsky. "It is a question of prestige, and so-called pride is most important."