The Kursk tragedy and Putin's rise to power

March 11, 2019 17:39
The sinking of the Kursk had taken a heavy toll on Russia’s pride, but it gave President Vladimir Putin the opportunity to consolidate political power.  Photo: Bloomberg

The recent Hollywood movie Kursk starring Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth tells about the true story of the Russian Oscar II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine K-141 Kursk, which sank to the sea bottom off the coast of Murmansk in Aug. 12, 2000, killing all the 118 crew members on-board.

Viewers may easily get an impression from the movie that the Russian navy is incompetent or they may even look down on Russia's military might.

However, the truth about the Kursk accident is far more complicated than what the movie depicts.

The sinking of the Kursk was not only one of the worst naval accidents in military history, but also, as it turns out, linked somewhat to President Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship for the two decades that followed.

According to the film plot, the Russian military took the brunt of the country’s deep economic recession and the resulting drastic cuts in defense budget during the 1990s.

As a result, not only did the Russian military have to sell its assets, but its equipment was also quickly becoming obsolete.

And when the Kursk suffered an internal explosion during a naval exercise spearheaded by the Northern Fleet and sank to the sea bottom in the summer of 2000, the highly bureaucratic military leadership in Moscow rejected NATO’s offer to rescue out of concerns about losing face, and about the possibility of its naval secrets being stolen by foreign powers. The rest is history.

If we look at the Kursk accident in the context of the actual environment at the time, what the movie tells are simply objective facts.

Nevertheless, one must also take into account the fact that there were mounting tensions between Russia and NATO at the turn of the millennium.

It was exactly against such a background that the Russian military at the time decided to flex its muscles as a form of protest against NATO’s continued expansion by mounting a massive naval exercise codenamed “Summer-X” in August 2000, during which Kursk was lost.

In the wake of the Cold War, NATO began to embark on an all-out eastward expansion, hence resulting in the rapidly deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West.

And the tensions between Russia and Western powers almost boiled over when NATO mounted a series of massive air strikes against the former Yugoslavia in 1999 in name of protecting the Kosovar people in Serbia, an act which was considered by Moscow as a gratuitous and outright military provocation in its backyard.

Even though by the time the Kursk accident took place, the war in Kosovo was already over, the Russians still remained highly distrustful of the West.

And that also explains why from Moscow’s perspective, the “Summer-X” naval exercise was indeed a necessary measure of deterrence against NATO rather than just a ceremonial drill.

The sinking of the Kursk had undoubtedly taken a heavy toll on Russia’s pride, yet as far as Putin was concerned, there was definitely a silver lining to it.

At first, Putin, who was then only recently sworn in as president and was not as firmly in power as he is today, came under enormous fire from the Russian media for failing to immediately return to Moscow from his holiday resort to handle the crisis.

Yet he quickly came to grips with the situation and seized the opportunity presented by the incident to ditch his previous image as an old-school bureaucrat and, more importantly, initiate a sweeping government overhaul in order to consolidate his political power.

Before the 2000 Kursk disaster, the Russian military remained largely in the hands of aging generals who had risen from the ranks back in the former Soviet era.

Nonetheless, the incident provided Putin with a timely and perfect opportunity to replace those former Soviet generals in the military and revamp the military leadership, particularly that of the Northern Fleet.

Following the Kursk accident, Putin put Sergei Ivanov in charge of the Russian defense ministry, the first ever civilian to assume the job, thereby breaking the decades-old tradition of the Red Army under which only top generals in active service were qualified for the office of the defense minister.

In the years that followed, Putin’s popularity continued to soar, thanks to his reversal of the sweeping privatization policies pursued by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, his efforts at re-establishing centralized authority, as well as his relentless crackdown on the oligarchs.

In fact, one fundamental reason why Russia was so determined to annex Crimea is that it wanted to regain control of the Black Sea, and restore the lost glory to the once mighty Black Sea Fleet.

To a certain extent, it might be fair to say that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is somehow indirectly related to the Northern Fleet tragedy back in 2000.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 28

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal