Candor and the Kursk

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Saturdays Washington Post: Disaster and democratization are linked in recent Soviet and Russian history. The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, too catastrophic to deny, forced the Soviet Union to end its systematic coverup of defects in its civilian nuclear program. Accountability for the disaster was imposed on responsible officials, and changes in nuclear policy were implemented. Chernobyl had terrible human consequences, but one salutary political result: It catalyzed Mikhail Gorbachevs glasnost and perestroika.

In a different way, the sinking of the submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea poses a test for the post-Soviet political system still taking shape in Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin, the trend has been toward more official suffocation of independent media and less governmental candor, especially in military matters. A steady stream of disinformation has emanated from the Kremlin regarding the war in Chechnya, for example.

Chaos and confusion must have gripped the navy officers in the storm-tossed area when the Kursk went down. And military establishments generally, not just the Russian one, are instinctively tight-lipped.

Still, Russias handling of the accident seems of a piece with the broader recrudescence of old Soviet standards of candor and competence. The Russian navy took two days to admit what had happened. Officers have put out conflicting information about facts as basic as the cause of the sinking even suggesting, apparently with no foundation, that a U.S. sub might be to blame.

Worst of all, offers of help from the United States, Britain and Norway were initially refused. British and Norwegian help has now been accepted almost a week after the sub sank. U.S. assistance, however, is apparently still more than the Russian military can countenance. In light of the Clinton administrations effort to engage and reassure Moscow, this is frustrating and, as a measure of Russian officialdoms basic capacity for trusting the former Cold War adversary, sobering.

Russias electronic and print media have covered the plight of the crews families and voiced skepticism about the governments performance. If this were a NATO submarine, the crew would already have been rescued, one Russian newspaper declaimed. Given Putins recent hostility toward press critics, this coverage suggests that all is not lost for press freedom in Russia. But no matter how the Kursk drama ultimately ends, many questions must still be addressed: Was the accident preventable? Why the refusal to let other countries help? And, most fundamental, what does this incident reveal about whether Russia truly possesses the money and trained personnel to operate safely the large fleet of nuclear-powered ships not to mention the vast arsenal of nuclear weapons that the great-power ambitions of its current leaders seem to require?

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