Streetwise Professor

August 12, 2010

It Sank: Ten Years After

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:03 am

Ten years ago today, the Oscar II class Russian submarine K-141, the Kursk, sank with all hands in the Barents Sea.  The incident revealed a great deal about the decrepitude of the Russian Navy, and military more generally.  The Kursk was the pride of the once mighty submarine fleet, most of which was rusting at dock in 2000.  Despite the fact that it was one of the most modern Russian subs, and one of the few remaining operational, it was destroyed almost certainly by the failure of welds and/or gaskets in a test Shkval torpedo that resulted in the leakage of its hydrogen peroxide fuel onto metals and oxides in the torpedo, resulting in a chemical reaction that culminated in an explosion of the fuel and a kerosene tank; other nations had discarded the use of H2O2 as a torpedo propellant due to its extreme volatility.  (Russia did withdraw all high test peroxide torpedoes from service after the Kursk catastrophe.)

Inspections of the type of torpedo implicated in the explosion undertaken in 2000-2001 found corrosion and decayed gaskets.  A torpedo of the type that caused the sinking was dropped while being transported to the Kursk prior to her fatal voyage, but it was loaded nonetheless, and could not be unloaded because the cranes necessary to do so were not working, and had been inoperative for some time. The crew, which had virtually no sea experience whatsoever, had never handled the Shkval torpedoes.

The blast blew off a torpedo tube door that was not closed properly due to a design and/or manufacturing flaw.   This flooded the compartment and caused the ship to being sinking.  The explosion ripped through three compartments of the ship, including the control room, which should have been insulated from the blast by a bulkhead, but was not, because it could travel between compartments via a ventilation shaft.   The blast perhaps disabled the crew in the control room:  many suffered indications of trauma.  Whether it was that, or a failure to react properly to the sinking condition of the ship, they did not activate an emergency blowout procedure to shoot the ship to the surface.  The ship hit bottom at speed, digging a 2 meter hole into the seabed.  The force of the impact detonated additional torpedoes that ripped through all compartments forward of the reactor space.  Some crewmen in the aft spaces survived; for how long is a matter of conjecture.

Although other Russian ships in the exercise heard the explosion on sonar, none reacted, all believing it was part of the drill.  The loss of the sub was not known for some time in part because an emergency buoy did not deploy; if it had, the ship would have been discovered within an hour, instead of the 31 it took in the event.  It had been deliberately disabled to prevent an accidental deployment while the sub was operating in the Mediterranean the prior year.

After some hours, the Navy realized the ship was in extremis, and dispatched a submarine rescue vessel.  The lack of communications between the Kursk and the exercise flagship, the Piotr Velikii, was evidently written off to the fact that communications breakdowns were routine.

It took 31 hours for the submersible to reach Kursk, but it was unable to attach to the rescue hatch on the sub.  The search took so long in part due to the fact that the submersible’s batteries had not been replaced, requiring the vessel to shut down power for extended periods.

It is interesting to note that the Northern Fleet’s rescue equipment had been sold off for scrap or sunk as “redundant” in the mid-1990s.  (I wonder who pocketed the money from the scrap sales?)

All in all, a tragic testament to the state of the Russian fleet in 2000.  And remember, this occurred in the nuclear submarine Navy, which by all accounts was–and should have been, given the extreme technical and operational demands of the service–the most capable branch of the Russian Navy.

But far more revealing—and disturbing—was the mendacious reaction of the Russian military and political establishment.

Most crucially, it refused immediate American and British offers of submarine rescue vessels.   They eventually agreed to British and Norwegian help—but only four days after the accident, by then far too late to do anything, for the vessels could not arrive for two days after the grudging acceptance of the offer.

Even then, the Russian Navy’s actions towards the would-be rescuers was monstrous.  The higher ups actively attempted to sabotage the Norwegians by lying to the rescuers about the Kursk. They said the ship was resting at a steep angle–false.  The said the escape hatch was damaged–false.  They went so far as to state deliberately that the rescue hatch opened counterclockwise, not clockwise as was actually the case.  Imagine, working at 100 meters in the freezing Barents Sea, trying to open a hatch, and turning it the wrong way: would you conclude that the hatch was broken?  How sick is that?  What was the purpose?  The Norwegian admiral in charge was incensed at the Russian behavior, seeing as it endangered his men.

In the days after the incident, the Navy and the government issued a blizzard of non-information, mis-information and dis-information.  At first, the Navy denied that anything was amiss, acknowledging a mere “technical difficulty.”  The government denied the problem for some time; it took two entire days to even admit that the ship “was in serious trouble,” and then lied about when the incident had occurred.  Indeed, the day after the sinking, the Navy commander told the press that the exercise had been flawless.  Yes: flawless.

They never used the word “sink.”  They claimed the entire crew was alive.  They claimed they were in communication with the crew, and that the ship was supplied with air and power from the surface.  The Navy excused its evident lack of preparation for a rescue by bewailing the weather conditions and strong currents, even though the weather was fine and the currents benign.  All complete and outrageous fabrications.

Enraged by the duplicity, at one Navy press conference, the mother of a Kursk officer, Nedezhda Tylik, launched into a screaming denunciation of official dishonesty.  In an event captured on film, a nurse was seen to move up behind Tylik, and inject her with a hypodermic needle.  Tylik collapsed and was taken from the room.  (A still photo is available here; I have not found the video online for free despite a diligent effort; there is a documentary that has the film that can be purchased here.)  She first claimed she had been sedated against her will, and the Navy said that it had indeed given her a sedative; in an Orwellian way, it acknowledged the “solicitous administration of needed tranquilizers.”

Then, remarkably, in the aftermath of a domestic and international outcry, the Navy denied that it had sedated her, and Tylik also recanted, claiming that she had only been given her heart medication at her husband’s request.  Yeah, sure.  Who you gonna believe?  Them or your lying eyes? (Tylik maintains this version in the documentary.  But why did neither she nor her husband make that statement initially?)

Even worse were the repeated statements by Russian Navy officials and Duma politicians that US submarines were to blame.  Specifically, they mooted the theory that a US Los Angeles class boat monitoring the exercise had struck the Kursk, holing it and causing it to sink.  At the notorious press conference in which Tylik was tranquilized, Northern Fleet commander Admiral Popov claimed he would spend the rest of his days finding out who “organized” the Kursk’s destruction.  I’m sure he and OJ can team up on their investigations.

Those peddling the conspiracy theory gave no explanation at this remarkable result, by which a boat displacing 7000 tons submerged could strike and sink one displacing 24,000 tons.  It would have had to been either a refutation of the laws of physics, or a very damning reflection on Russo-Soviet submarine construction.   (No prior collision between a US boat and much smaller Soviet craft had ever led to such a catastrophic result.)

But of course, they never believed it.  It was all just a typically Soviet reaction in which the evil Americans are responsible for every Russo-Soviet disaster.

They did apparently convince one French filmmaker, who produced a documentary pushing this cock and bull story, with a twist.  The Frenchman–whom I shall not dignify by name–claims that the USS Toledo collided with the Kursk while shadowing the exercise; a trailing sub, the USS Memphis, heard the Kursk open its torpedo doors after the collision, and to defend Toledo fired a torpedo at the Kursk that miraculously hit the doomed sub right in the torpedo room, causing the detonation.  The clinching evidence, according to the film, was a clean round hole in the Kursk’s hull, telltale evidence of a hit by a torpedo with a shaped charge.  Uhm, the Mk 48 torpedoes that US subs carry don’t use shaped charges.  (Air dropped Mk 50s do use such warheads.)  Moreover, Mk 48 torpedoes don’t work by detonating directly against the hull of the sub.  And the Toledo never underwent a long stint in the yard for repairs, as would be required after a collision.  (And what is it with French fellow traveler filmmakers, not only this guy but the one who did the “documentary” claiming that the 911 attack on the Pentagon was actually an American missile strike?)

Putin, then President for a mere seven months and some days, reacted with . . . no, it would be more accurate to say he didn’t react.  But then he engaged in the damage control methods he has employed ever since (and is using again in the fires).  He promised a new apartment and a cash payment to the families of the dead sailors, and gave medals to the dead.  The payment to the Kursk dead was two orders of magnitude bigger than the standard death payment for Russian military dead.  But the ordinary Russian military dead weren’t a public issue.  As a further PR gesture, Putin also decreed the expenditure of an amount equal to twice the Navy’s submarine force operating budget to raise the ship so its crew could be buried, with full Orthodox rites.  So: defuse a crisis by throwing out blood money promiscuously.

In fairness to Putin, it should be noted that the Navy lied to him as shamelessly as it did to the world.

Putin was initially savaged by the Russian press, but surprise, surprise, within days the Russian press uniformly lionized him.  He has been much more effective at managing the press ever since.  They now skip right to the lionizing part, without fail—no matter how badly he fails.

Putin was at his most revealing when, less than month later in an appearance on Larry King Live, he responded to King’s question “What happened to the Kursk?,” by first pausing for some time, and then grunting through a creepy and tight semi-grin: “It sank.” It was a disturbingly bloodless performance.

Although the Kursk sank before I began to follow Russian developments as closely as I do today, I did track the Kursk episode with some interest.   Looking back, it was a very revealing experience.  Much of what I have written on SWP in the past four years was foreshadowed by the Kursk incident, the official incompetence and mendacity most notably.

I think it also heralded the death of any opposition press within Russia, for never again was Putin subject to the kind of open criticism he suffered in the days immediately following the sinking.  He soon launched an attack on all independent media within Russia.  Knowing who he is and from whence he came, it is likely that he would have strangled the press eventually.  But I have little doubt that the attack was accelerated by Putin’s rage at the criticism he received; he admitted that he “did not think about public relations.” Never again, he concluded.  No, not that never again would a disaster of such magnitude occur—for there has been a litany of disasters in the past 10 years (think Beslan and Nord Ost and on and on)—but never again would he permit an honest accounting of them.  It is one thing at which he has succeeded admirably.

You could do a lot worse to learn about Putin and Putinism and the Russian military establishment than by revisiting the sad history of the cursed Kursk.

May her crew rest in peace.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeffrey Carter and Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong. Craig pirrong said: Updated my SWP blog post: It Sank: Ten Years After ( ) […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor -- — August 8, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  2. “What happened to the Kursk?” – “It sank”.
    “What happened to Russia?” – “She burned”.
    “What did Putin learn?” – don’t rock the boat. It’s amazing how few people Putin sacked during his tenure. Loyalty trumps ability. Do as you please in your fief, as long as ???? ?????? is numero uno at the polls and show no ambition for greater office. BTW, in the last 2 years one third of the governors have been replaced. That’s more than in the previous 10 years. Even ethnic republican titans like Shaimiev and Rakhimov, who seemed to destined to leave the office only feet first, have not been spared.

    Comment by So? — August 12, 2010 @ 8:46 am

  3. That’s a good point So?. What’s your take on Medvedev’s dismissals since his presidency began SWP?

    Comment by iosdioz — August 12, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

  4. Predictably, like the coward he is, Putin chooses to simply ignore the anniversary of the disaster:

    What a tiny little man, our Mr. Putin. Indeed, not a man at all, but a craven mouse scurrying in the shadows.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 12, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  5. SO?:

    “It’s amazing how few people Putin sacked during his tenure.”

    You’re absolutely wrong, it’s not the least bit amazing. A child could have predicted that is how a proud KGB spy would behave.

    More amazing is the number of journalists and opposition leaders Putin has shamelessly murdered.

    But most amazing is that the people of Russia haven’t sacked Putin. One thought before Putin that Russians had learned something from the downfall of the USSR and the horror of Stalin. One thought them victims. Now, one sees they were willing perpetrators, complicit in the downfall as much as the leadership, if not more.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 12, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  6. It was all just a typically Soviet reaction in which the evil Americans are responsible for every Russo-Soviet disaster.

    This seems to have passed into post-Soviet times. I’ve just returned from a trip to Russia where I found almost every Russian who commented on the subject convinced that the the US is responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 12, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  7. @Tim. Oy.

    Haven’t they ever heard of Occam’s Razor in Russia? Or do they just go with the most convoluted, implausible, conspiratorial explanation? I guess the Russian Razor is: “If it’s bad: the Americans did it. If it’s good: the Russians did it.”

    Thanks for that on the spot report.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 12, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

  8. “It’s amazing how few people Putin sacked during his tenure.”

    You’re absolutely wrong, it’s not the least bit amazing. A child could have predicted that is how a proud KGB spy would behave.


    Thank you for yet another moronic knee-jerk response. I am becoming more and more convinced that you are a bot. “Putin, KGB, Stalin, Gulag”…

    Comment by So? — August 12, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  9. Yet the number of people polled in America, that think that the gummint had something to do with 911, never drops below 20%. Occam’s Razor: people are morons.

    Comment by So? — August 12, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

  10. Prof, this is a great post. What were your sources? I didn’t know about the crane problems and a few other details.

    So? and others: I think there is always a percentage of a population that believes in conspiracy theories of the wildest sort. Here in Russia, conspiracy theories — or rather a conspiratorial view of life — made sense. Since the govt didn’t provide information, and since govt statements didn’t match reality, you HAD to read between the lines. And very often, of course, the govt said X was done by Y, when it was actually done by the govt. Many Russians then apply that same principle to everyone else. Add to the mix 10 years of anti-US propaganda, statements by officials accusing the US of every crime committed anywhere for the last two centuries, and limited information, and PRESTO! The US sank the Kursk, the Cheonan; it fought with NATO troops in South Ossetia; it blew up the WTC towers; it started the war in the Korean peninsula; it is using a facility in Alaska and a satellite to cause the current drought; it asked BP to blow the oil well in the Gulf so that it can use a neutron bomb on it and change the Gulf Stream, thereby giving the UK warmer temperatures (I’m not making that up — I don’t have the imagination); and of course it fought against the Serbs so that Kosovo would be a launching point to attack — wait for it — the soft underbelly of Russia.

    Comment by mossy — August 13, 2010 @ 2:00 am

  11. One of the challenges I posed to one Russian who thought the US sunk the Korean warship was whether he thought Obama was personally responsible. No, of course he didn’t. So I asked whether the US submarine commander who allegedly fired the torpedo was acting on his own, or just following orders from above. From above, of course. Okay, I said. At what level did somebody in the US Navy or Pentagon decide to issue an order to sink a Korean warship all on his own? Blank looks. The CIA, I was told. Oh, so the CIA called up a US Navy admiral in the Pentagon and told him to issue a fire order to one of his subs but please can he kindly not tell his boss? More blank looks, followed by an accusation that I am naive.

    The concept of military and government personnel being identifiable, accountable, and obliged to follow a chain of command and the law seems to be alien to the average Russian. Funnily enough, I did mention Occam’s Razor, in the context of “erm, isn’t it more likely that the North Koreans sunk it?” Inconceivable, apparently, because they would have no reason to (despite an officially ongoing war and a history of threats and violent attacks against the south). The Americans however, well, they want their bases. It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 13, 2010 @ 5:05 am

  12. @Mossy. Thanks. A lot of internet sources. The best single source I found is Zoltan Barany, Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military. Barany is a professor at U Texas. The crane detail was in that book.

    Neutron bomb? Changing the Gulf Stream? Like you say–you can’t make that up. But somebody did!

    @Tim. Thanks for the more detailed story. Amazing. CIA: the source of all evil in the source of all evil. The Navy wouldn’t give the CIA the time of day, and vice versa. Interesting that such a hierarchical country finds chain of command such an alien concept.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 13, 2010 @ 6:27 am

  13. […] It Sank: Ten Years After, by the Streetwise Professor […]

    Pingback by Russia Blog Roundup – 13 August 2010 — August 13, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  14. My favourite one is how Obama is a Muslim and an Al-Qaeda operative, who hates white people and wants to bring down America from the inside.

    Comment by So? — August 13, 2010 @ 7:46 am

  15. Interesting that such a hierarchical country finds chain of command such an alien concept. Oh they’ve just been watching too many movies. I honestly think that’s part of it. There is a belief that you can have a huge conspiracy and it would never get out. No one would spill the beans. You know, like in Dan Brown books.
    Yes, Tim and So?: When Obama was elected, a young person (worked for a US company, reads English) said: Oh, he was just appointed because he’s sure to fail.
    Appointed by whom? I asked.
    By the elite.
    The elite? I asked. Who’s that — give me job descriptions, titles, names… anything.
    Okay, I said, let’s look at this another way. Did you see all those people standing in line to vote?
    So how did “the elite” arrange that?
    Silence. Then: They rigged the votes.
    But they didn’t have to — those people were voting for him.
    Well, they arranged it so all those people would vote for him. They made the other guy look bad. They made him name Palin as VP candidate, knowing that would make everyone vote for Obama.
    Well, it went on and on and on, but you get the idea.
    And So?, you probably didn’t know that all Muslims in the US are exempted from having to buy health insurance because it’s against their religion, so everyone else in the US has to foot their bill. That whopper is American-made.

    Thanks, Prof. Will look up those sources. BTW I once met Kolesnikov’s widow. Lovely woman — you’d never guess she’d gone through hell. I thought about all the whining I do and felt like a total sh*t.

    Comment by mossy — August 13, 2010 @ 8:20 am

  16. US Presidential Elections are predictable. The more charismatic candidate wins. Republicans raised the white flag by nominating McCain. WRT health insurance. I thought you’re exempt if you opt out of Social Security, like the Amish. Do the Muslims spurn the dole as well? (In which case, how do they explain Gaza?).

    Comment by So? — August 13, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  17. Hm. I guess irony doesn’t also get conveyed online. So? I meant that the Muslims-are-exempt bit was another crazy conspiratorial whopper, that particular one from the US.
    Will henceforth try to make my sarcasm clearer.

    Comment by mossy — August 13, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  18. +++The CIA, I was told+++

    I can’t beleive it wasn’t the Zionists. Sounds very odd without ’em.

    Comment by LL — August 13, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

  19. […] It Sank: Ten Years After, by the Streetwise Professor […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia Blog Roundup – 13 August 2010 — August 13, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

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