Russian prestige sinks with sub

The stranding of one of Russia's newest, best-equipped nuclear vessels may force military rethink.

The stricken nuclear submarine trapped on the sea bed above the Arctic Circle was the pride of Russia's nuclear forces and a symbol of its hope to maintain nuclear parity with the United States. No matter how the accident plays out, it is seen as a major blow to Russia's prestige and may force the country to scale back its ambitions as a global military power.

Russian Navy ships yesterday were at the scene, but the prospects for a rescue appeared difficult. The Kursk, an Antyei-class attack submarine with 107 crew members on board, lay on the floor of the Barents Sea in water more than 150 feet deep. One Norwegian report put the vessel more than 450 feet down.

Russian Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov said the Kursk apparently had been involved in a major collision and sustained serious damage.

"Despite all the efforts being taken, the probability of a successful outcome from the situation with the Kursk is not very high," Mr. Kuroyedov told the ITAR-Tass news agency. Russian television earlier reported water had gushed through the torpedo tubes and flooded the front of the vessel.

The Kursk was taking part in military exercises, the largest the Russian Navy has conducted in years, at the time of Sunday's accident.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Kursk was not carrying nuclear weapons and insisted its two reactors had been shut down safely. There was no danger of hazardous radiation leaks into the surrounding Arctic ecosystem, a ministry spokesman said.

Russia's aging cold-war-era submarine fleet has been dogged by accidents - the consequence of Soviet technological corner-cutting in its race to keep up with the US - and the collapse of funding, morale, and discipline since the demise of the USSR in 1991. But the Kursk was one of the Russian Navy's newest ships, commissioned in 1995 and intended to demonstrate Moscow's continuing claim to great-power status on the high seas.

In April, President Vladimir Putin spent a night on the Karelia, a ballistic- missile sub from the same naval base, Severodvinsk on the White Sea, and praised the submarine fleet as the mainstay of Russia's nuclear deterrent. "Russia needs armed forces, and the Northern Fleet is one of their main elements," Mr. Putin said.

On Friday, the Kremlin Security Council decided to make deep cuts in Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal in order to fund other branches of the fraying and cash-strapped military forces. But experts say the accident with the Kursk - however it plays out - will stand as a stark warning to Russian military planners to scale down their ambitions in the future.

"This is one of the best and one of the newest models, and what happened is an accident that was bound to happen because of lack of proper finances," says Vladimir Urban, a naval expert with AVN, an independent military news agency. "In the past the submariners were the elite, but now the professional level is much reduced."

The Kursk, planned in an age when the Soviet Union was striving to match the US on the high seas, is a giant some 500 feet long, 60 feet wide, and displacing 24,000 tons of water when fully submerged. "This is the biggest attack submarine ever built, and it was the great hope for the Russian Navy to maintain its superpower image," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert in Moscow.

"The Kursk is so large it has a sauna, a swimming pool, and quarters for pets," he says. "You cannot blame this accident on the usual causes of Russian naval disasters - age and technological backwardness."

The Antyei-class submarines, known in NATO terminology as Oscar-2, were designed to attack American aircraft-carrier groups. They are capable of carrying 24 underwater-to-surface cruise missiles and a battery of heavy torpedoes.

Experts warn that the crew faces extreme danger from power blackouts, oxygen shortage, and possible radiation leaks. "The perennial problem in the Russian Navy is poor training, bad morale, and nonexistent discipline," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "Crews of these ships often spend their time ashore foraging for food instead of performing vital maintenance.

"We may claim to be a great power, but the truth is we can barely afford to change the light bulbs in these ships, much less keep them running properly," he says.

A study by the environmental group Greenpeace found the Soviet Navy suffered at least 121 accidents with its nuclear submarine fleet between 1956 and 1991. These included a nuclear-armed submarine that caught fire and sank in the Atlantic, some 600 miles from Bermuda, in October 1986. A Russian scientist later revealed that some of the ship's nuclear warheads broke open, leaking deadly plutonium into the ocean.

In 1989, a nuclear-powered sub, the Komsomolets, sank in the Barents Sea near Norway, killing 42 of its 69-man crew. The ship's reactors are cited by environmental groups as a "ticking time bomb" in the fragile Arctic environment.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Navy has experienced repeated accidents with its aging submarine fleet, including collisions at sea, power failures, and on-board fires.

"The basic problem is that the Soviet Union tried to keep up with the United States by cutting corners with technology," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "That is the unwieldy legacy of the entire Russian nuclear establishment.

"It is sadly easy to predict many more accidents of this type," he says.

*Material from the wire services was used for this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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