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NSL Update 12-20-01

On 3 December the Financial Times reported that President Vladimir Putin has demoted three senior Russian Navy officers for their handling of the loss of the submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in August 2000 (NAVINT 13/22, 15 November 2001, p 7);13/19, 1 October, p.7 and earlier). The Commander in Chief (C-in-C) of the Navy, Adm of the Fleet Vladimir Kuroyedov, said that Adm Vyacheslav Popov, C-in-C of the Northern Fleet, VAdm Mikhail Motsak, his Chief of Staff, were both demoted, while RAdm Oleg Burtsev, commanding the Submarine Flotilla, RAdm Valery Filatove, his Chief of Staff, RAdm Mikhail Kuznetsov, VAdm Nikolai Mikheyev, RAdm Farad Zinnatullin, Capt Alexander Teslenko and Capt Ruben Karakhanov have all been "disciplined".

In addition, Capt Vladimir Kobelev received a warning, and RAdm Gennady Verich and RAdm Valery Penferov were both sacked.

Navy and Defence Ministry officials have made no inferences about a link between these major changes and a statement made on 19 November, in which Deputy Premier Ilya Klebanov repeated speculation that the Kursk sank after being hit by a foreign submarine. He is quoted as saying, "We have no direct evidence proving there was a collision but quite a lot of indirect evidence," at a press conference.

The minister, who is in overall charge of the salvage mission told reporters that he had personally questioned watchkeeping officers aboard the flagship Pyotr Velikiy, following reports that they had sighted a distress buoy in the sea. Klebanov confirmed that an oil slick was spotted at the site of the sinking, adding that sailors and officers on the cruiser had even made drawings of what they had seen. These sketches had become items of evidence in the investigation, he said, "Only time will show if the indirect evidence will bring us closer to the moment of truth..."

Reports of UK Royal Navy or US Navy submarines observing Russian naval exercises in the disaster area have been dismissed by diplomats at the Moscow embassies of both countries. A US official said there was "not a shred of evidence" pointing to an American submarine being on patrol there in August last year. The British embassy said that the Royal Navy had no submarine "within a thousand miles" of the wreck site at the time.

The Russian defence community seems unable to shed the habits it inherited from the days of Josef Stalin. Bearing bad tidings no longer carries the risk of meeting one's death in the basement of the Lubianka, but still nobody seems willing to break bad news.

Nor, apparently, do the higher echelons like to face the Russian public without a frantic search for some foreign conspiracy. Ever since the tragic loss of the Kursk, the Russian press and TV have pressed for answers from all levels of the Navy, and the Navy has at times.seemed unable to agree on a cover story. Klebanov's comment has also been seen as a last-ditch attempt to deflect Putin from is pro-Western stance over the war on terrorism.

Both Adm Popov and his Chief of Staff Motsak persistented with the story of a collision with a foreign submarine, despite the evidence pointing to a torpedo fuel explosion.

In an obvious effort to bolster sagging morale, President Putin appeared at the commissioning of the new Project 971M Bars class submarine Gepard (K-335) on 4 December. The ceremony came three days after publication of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov's official report on the loss of the Kursk.