Russia goes full speed ahead to raise the 'Kursk'

Submarine salvage: Pride and reputation at stake as Putin defies safety warnings in effort to fulfil promise to families of 118 crew who died
Click to follow

Deep-sea divers are heading for the Barents Sea to begin a controversial and swiftly organised operation to raise the giant Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, which blew up and sank 11 months ago, killing all on board.

Deep-sea divers are heading for the Barents Sea to begin a controversial and swiftly organised operation to raise the giant Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, which blew up and sank 11 months ago, killing all on board.

The international team of British, Russian, Norwegian and Dutch divers on board the vessel Mayo, which sailed from Aberdeen, will first clear debris from around the wreck and cut holes in the hull so cables can be attached.

Chainsaws operated by robots will then cut off the mangled front half of the Kursk, which may still contain unexploded torpedoes. In two months' time, 20 winches will slowly raise the rear part of the submarine, containing the bodies of some of the 118 crew, so it can be towed to port.

It is a hastily arranged operation. In May Russia dropped the international salvage companies with whom it was negotiating because they thought raising the Kursk this year was too dangerous. The consortium wanted to wait until summer 2002. Ilya Klebanov, the Russian minister in charge of the operation, said: "We could not go along with that."

The explanation for the Russian emphasis on speed is simple enough. Yury Gladkeyevich of the military news agency AVN said: "The number one reason is that [President Vladimir] Putin promised the families of the crew last year that he would bring the Kursk back to the surface. He can't back out of it now."

Mr Putin's notorious failure to return from holiday on the Black Sea coast for several days after the Kursk sank was, by his own admission, a low point in his presidency. Andrei Piontkovsky of the Centre for Strategic Studies said: "His opinion poll ratings went down at the time because this was the elementary human reaction to his apparent indifference. When he and his PR men realised how badly they had damaged themselves they feverishly made promises, including the promise to raise the submarine."

The Russian navy is eager to ensure that nobody else is able to look inside the Kursk and, in particular, any of its Granit cruise missiles, which may be intact. Mr Gladkeyevich said: "Security is a factor, but there are cheaper ways of ensuring it. All you need is surface patrols to deter intruders."

The loss of the 14,000-tonne submarine on 12 August last year was not just a disaster for Mr Putin. It swiftly turned into a farcical display of the Russian military's disorganisation and incompetence. The navy could not make up its mind if anybody was alive on board, and the full crew list was only published when the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper bribed a naval officer to disclose it.

When a dozen foreign divers, mostly British from a Norwegian firm, were allowed access, they were able to tear the cover off an escape hatch in an hour – something Russian rescue submarines had tried and failed to do for a week.

The Russian navy will be eager not to disgrace itself again despite the political pressure from the Kremlin to move quickly before the weather deteriorates. Unlike last year it will, from the beginning, use foreign expertise, gained in the offshore oil industry. But the political imperative to raise the Kursk quickly was shown in May when Russia dropped the first consortium lined up for the task.

In a statement explaining why they had been unable to reach an agreement with Moscow, the consortium members Heerema, Smit International and Halliburton, said: "The companies would not compromise the safety of its crews and equipment, nor of the wreckage, its victims, or the environment in order to rush for this year's completion."

Russia decided that it did want to complete the operation this year. It signed a contract with the Dutch heavy-lifting company Mammoet and Smit International, a member of the previous consortium, at a cost of $80m (£55m) on 18 May.

The Russian government has been putting out plenty of information this time, but is clearly nervous. Viktor Litovkin, military expert on Obshaya Gazeta newspaper, said: "Nobody has ever done this before. When the US tried to salvage a Soviet nuclear submarine in the Pacific, they failed."

No one knows the exact state of the two nuclear reactors in the rear of the submarine, or the missiles and torpedoes in the front half, or what will happen if they are moved. This is one reason the bows will be cut off and left on the bottom. Dr Yevgeny Velikhov, a leading Russian nuclear scientist, believes everything that could go wrong with the Kursk has already done so. He said: "Since nothing happened to the [nuclear] reactor in the blast, I hope nothing will happen to it when the submarine is raised, although there are, of course, quite a lot of problems."

One question likely to remain unanswered is what caused the initial explosion that sunk the Kursk. A few minutes later a second explosion tore the front half of the vessel apart. This second blast was probably triggered by the fuel in a torpedo catching fire, causing its warhead to blow up and starting a chain reaction of other torpedoes or missiles exploding. But the cause of the fire, if there was one, and the initial explosion is likely to remain a matter of speculation. Mr Gladkeyevich said: "If there were dangerous tests being carried out, the authorities probably already know about them, but will keep what happened a secret."