A tense ordeal that brought back painful memories of the Kursk submarine disaster five years ago ended in sighs of relief Sunday, after a crash international effort saved seven Russian seamen stranded on the Pacific Ocean floor in a cold and disabled minisub, with their oxygen rapidly dwindling.
Both the happy outcome and the subsequent expressions of gratitude were in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the Kursk disaster, which killed 118 sailors in August 2000 and left lingering bitterness over alleged official lies and incompetence.
"This weekend's events show that the lessons of the Kursk have been learned and Russia is going in the right direction," says Sergei Markov, director of the Council on International Affairs, which advises the Kremlin. "This time Russian military commanders didn't hesitate to ask for foreign help, and they gave timely information to the public. They didn't put secrecy first."
The crew of the AS-28 Priz submarine - itself a rescue vessel - were shown on Russian TV, walking and smiling wanly, after spending nearly three days huddled together to conserve air and warmth, listening for sounds of help.
Russian officials were full of praise for the 29-man British team that rushed to the site off the remote Kamchatka Peninsula, bringing a Scorpio submersible robot. The Scorpio cut the Priz free from debris in which it had become ensnared during naval war games on Thursday. The crew had about a day's worth of air left when they were rescued.
"The help of the Royal Navy of Great Britain was crucial in this operation," said Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet. "We have great admiration for the high professionalism and technical capability of our British colleagues, accomplished this difficult mission in just 3-1/2 hours."
It was an unprecedented display of international cooperation. US specialists were also on hand with a Scorpio, and Japanese naval units were steaming toward the scene in Beryozovaya Bay, one of the most militarized areas in Russia.
The wife of the Priz commander, Lt. Vyacheslav Milashevsky, was shown on Russian TV smiling and giving thanks for his deliverance. "My feelings danced, and I was so happy I cried," she said.
Russian naval commanders at first said the 55-ton, 13-meter Priz had become entangled in fishing nets while performing still unspecified maneuvers. Later they indicated it had been caught in the cables of a cold war-era underwater antisubmarine antenna. They also gave conflicting estimates of the stricken ship's air supply, ranging from one to five days, and differed publicly over the rescue plans.
But experts say there was probably no deliberate fibbing, as happened during the Kursk crisis. "The Kursk was a modern atomic submarine, so it was much more sensitive than a minisub designed for underwater salvage," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "Still, you couldn't say they did a good job of keeping the public informed during this accident."
The Kursk sank in the Barents Sea after a botched torpedo test triggered two underwater explosions. For several days, Russian military officials refused all offers of foreign assistance, and insisted they had the situation under control. A Russian AS-28 submersible - the same type saved in the Pacific last weekend - attempted to reach the Kursk and failed. It later became known that at least 23 sailors survived the blasts and waited in vain for rescue.
Russian naval authorities at first claimed that an American submarine had rammed the Kursk, and lied repeatedly to the public about the crew's condition and the chances for rescue. "It was the Soviet mentality on display," says Sergei Strokan, an international affairs expert with the daily Kommersant newspaper. "They thought the main goal was to protect secrets above all, and that human lives were expendable. It is certainly a big step forward that they chose to ask for help from the West in this [Priz] case."
President Vladimir Putin, newly installed in the Kremlin at the time of the Kursk sinking, was sharply criticized for refusing to interrupt his vacation and for failing to fire top military officials whom many blamed for mishandling the accident. Mr. Putin made no public statement during this crisis, but dispatched Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to oversee rescue operations.
Mr. Ivanov, a former KGB officer whom many experts regard as Putin's heir apparent, also hailed the rescue. "We have seen in deeds, not in words, what the brotherhood of the sea means," he said.
Critics say what hasn't changed is the Russian Navy's preparedness for undersea disasters. News agencies quoted Royal Navy Commander Jony Powis as saying the rescue was a "fairly typical operation" for the British team.
But the Russian Pacific Fleet, which earlier made a failed attempt to grapple and drag the stricken Priz into shallow water, apparently lacked Scorpio-style robots or trained divers equipped to work at the 190-meter depth where the craft was trapped. "Investments into rescue systems since the Kursk disaster have obviously not paid off," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "Russian submariners seem to be no safer. When they get into trouble, it looks as if they can only be rescued by foreigners."
Not everyone appeared pleased by the assistance. "That area is stuffed with secrets," retired Russian Admiral Eduard Baltin told the Interfax news agency. "A secret cable runs through there, and so does our frontline submarine detection system," including the undersea antenna where the Priz was trapped, he said.
But others say the affair may ease the chill between Russia and the West. "For the public, this will show that the West is not an alien, hostile force that would exploit our misfortunes to steal secrets," says Mr. Strokan. "It was cooperation in the best sense."