Kursk Submarine Disaster

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On Saturday, August 12, 2000, the nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine Kursk (K-141), one of Russia's most modern submarines, was lost with all 118 crewmembers during a large-scale exercise of the Russian Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea. The Kursk sank just after its commander, Captain First Rank Gennady Lyachin, informed the exercise directors that the submarine was about to execute a mock torpedo attack on a surface target. Exercise controllers lost contact with the vessel and fleet radio operators failed to reestablish communication. Shortly after the Kursk's last communication, Russian and Western acoustic sensors recorded two underwater explosions, one smaller and a second larger (the equivalent of five tons of TNT).

Russian surface and air units began a search for the submarine and in the early evening located a target at a depth of 108 meters (354.3 feet) and about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the Northern Fleet's base at Murmansk. Russian undersea rescue units were dispatched to the site. The command of the Northern Fleet was slow to announce the possible loss of the submarine or to provide reliable information on the event. On August 13 Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, conducted a press conference on the success of the exercise but did not mention the possible loss of the Kursk. A Russian undersea apparatus reached the Kursk on Sunday afternoon and reported that the submarine's bow had been severely damaged by an explosion. The rescue crews suggested three hypotheses to explain the sinking: an internal explosion connected with the torpedo firing, a possible collision with another submarine or surface ship, or the detonation of a mine left over from World War II.

On Monday, August 14, the Northern Fleet's press service began to report its version of the disaster. The reports emphasized the absence of nuclear weapons, the stability of the submarine's reactors, and the low radioactivity at the site. It also falsely reported that communications had been reestablished with the submarine. The Northern Fleet and the Naval High Command in Moscow reported the probable cause of the disaster as a collision with a foreign submarine. While there were reports of evidence supporting this thesis, none was ever presented to confirm the explanation, and both the United States and Royal navies denied that any of their submarines had been involved in any collision with the Kursk. The Russian Navy was also reluctant to publish a list of those on board the submarine. The list, leaked to the newspaper Komsomolskaya pravda (Komsomol Truth), was published on August 18. The Russian Navy's initial unwillingness to accept foreign assistance in the rescue operation and failure to get access to the Kursk undermined its credibility.

When President Vladimir Putin learned of the crisis while on vacation in Sochi, he created a State Commission under Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov to investigate the event. Putin invited foreign assistance in the rescue operation. British and Norwegian divers successfully entered the Kursk on August 21 and found no survivors. Putin had kept a low profile during the rescue phase and did not directly address the relatives of the crew until August 22. At that time Putin vowed to recover the crew and vessel. In the fall of 2001 an international recovery team lifted the Kursk, minus the damaged bow. The hull was brought back to a dry dock at Roslyakovo. In December 2001, on the basis of information regarding the preparation for the exercise in which the Kursk was lost, President Putin fired fourteen senior naval officials, including Admiral Popov. Preliminary data from the Klebanov commission seems to confirm that the submarine sank as a result of a detonation of an ultra highspeed torpedo, skval -type. On June 18, 2002, Ilya Klebanov confirmed that the remaining plausible explanation for the destruction of the submarine was an internal torpedo explosion.

See also: military, soviet and post-soviet; putin, vladimir vladimirovich


Burleson, Clyde. (2002). Kursk Down. New York: Warner Books.

Jacob W. Kipp