Staunton, August 13 – A leader’s response to a crisis early in his time in office is an instructive if sometimes overlooked indication of he will continue to behave. Such it was with Vladimir Putin and the loss of the Kursk submarine with all hands 14 years ago this week: All the qualities he has shown since then were on display at that time for those who cared to look.
On August 12, the Kursk submarine sank in 108 meters of water in the Barents Sea. Many countries offered help; they were turned down. Media coverage was restricted. Not all of the 118 who were lost died immediately official claims to the contrary. No public investigation was allowed. And no one was punished for what happened.
In short, the way Putin has behaved since was how he behaved then, something that calls into question the judgments of those in both Russia and the West who insisted or even now continue to insist that Putin has changed with time or even that he has been driven to act as he does by others.
Yesterday in Murmansk, there were meetings in memory of those who died, and the anniversary provoked another round of discussions about why it had occurred. According to the ecology watchdog Bellona Organization, the official version remains that the submarine sank because of a torpedo explosion.
But as there was no public investigation of what occurred, many explanations were suggested and continue to circulate. Among those suggested include a possible collision with another sub, the unintended launch of a missile, or perhaps the explosion of a mine left over from World War II. In short, there has been no closure.
Aleksandr Nikitin, the head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office and a hero to many environmentalists for his role in exposing Soviet and Russian dumping of nuclear materials in the Arctic, says he personally is inclined to believe the official version but only because the torpedoes on such submarines were so dangerous.
He notes that his organization had warned about the dangers of the use of such equipment and had unsuccessfully sought more information from Russian officials about this and other accidents.
Nils Bohmer, the head of the Bellona group in Oslo, says that it remains important to “draw lessons” from the Kursk accident, all the more so because now the number of submarines operating in that sea is far greater raising the possibility that there may be more such accidents in the future.
Nikitin agrees. While there has not been a single similar accident since the Kursk, he said, the number of submarines operating in the region is approaching what it was in Cold War times, and consequently, the number of accidents, which was much higher in the 1970s and 1980s, could increase.
Must Russia and the world wait for another catastrophe to have answers? Nikitin asks. The answer to that question unfortunately remains “open.”