Sunken sub and the 'new' Russia

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

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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.

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.

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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."

Questions were on the lips of many Russians, as they read headlines about the likely failure of further rescue attempts and speculation that all 118 sailors aboard (early reports had lower figures) may have been killed when a torpedo- tube explosion on Saturday caused much of the ship to flood.

Not telling the full story was a hallmark of Soviet times, when Kremlinologists found significance each time senior figures were airbrushed out of official portraits; or tried to break the barrier of silence that loomed when top officials were taken ill or died.

Generals from Afghan days

"From the very beginning of this accident, officials were lying, because these Soviet generals still dominate the military," says Valentina Melnikova, a spokeswoman for the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee that during the year-long Chechnya campaign has pressured the government to be honest about combat casualties.

"They are unable to confess to the 'enemy' that they are unable to act, or to do anything with the submarine," she says, noting that many medal-bedecked senior officers were up-and-coming during the rule of Communist dinosaur Leonid Brezhnev and fought in the USSR's failed invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

"That's why the military ideology is just the same as it was in the Brezhnev era. Nothing has changed," she says, adding with finality, they will delay the truth "forever."

A Soviet submarine reportedly carrying a nuclear payload sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1968. The US recovered some of the bodies, though the Soviets are believed to have refused to accept them -- or to accept that they were theirs.

During the first Chechen war, 1994 to 1996, disinformation was common -- including the example of one unit that was forced to fill out vacation requests, and was then sent to Grozny. Many were killed in an attack that officials at first denied ever took place.

The example of Russia's second Chechen war -- conducted under Putin's reign and still popular among many Russians -- has hardly been an example of openness. Just as the official Soviet figure of 14,000 dead in the Afghanistan war is certainly too low, so is the official figure released for the Chechen conflict.

The Mothers' Committee estimates that the official figure of 2,500 Federal troops killed in Chechnya reflects only half of the 5,000 they believe were killed there.

"Up to now in Chechnya, every soldier missing in action is included in the list of deserters, though many were captured by the Chechens," Melnikova says. "They also don't include hospital deaths or suicides, so the real number is twice as high."

Fiddling with such figures -- or the "official" stories that mix fact with fiction about the submarine disaster -- will be no consolation for the trapped sailors of the Kursk. But that such contradictions persist in the age of Putin takes some back to the 1970s, when the following joke about Brezhnev and Napoleon was prevalent:

Former Soviet leader Brezhnev takes the French general to a military parade at Red Square. As the tanks and missiles thunder past, Napoleon reads a copy of Pravda, the Communist Party propaganda mouthpiece.

"You see?" Brezhnev told Napoleon, waving at the modern arsenal, "if you had weapons like this, you never would have lost."

"If I had newspapers like this," Napoleon replied, holding up the newspaper, "no one would have ever known that I lost."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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