If one were to draw a map of the locales most pivotal to Vladimir Putin’s political trajectory, the bottom of the Barents Sea might not immediately come to mind. And yet, long before his incursions in Syria, Ukraine, and the U.S. elections, it was in those frigid waters off the navy base at Vidyayevo, in the northwestern corner of his country, that the Russian leader’s career took an indelible turn.
On August 12, 2000, a year after Putin took the helm as President Boris Yeltsin’s premier and less than six months into his own presidency, an explosion rocked the forward torpedo room of the Oscar II class Russian submarine Kursk. The blast was followed by a second, larger explosion that drove the vessel to the bottom of the Barents, inciting a crisis during what was to have been a milestone show of force by the Russian Northern Fleet.
A National Security Agency staffer monitored the dismal events from Oslo, Norway, where he had arrived as a signals liaison officer barely one month prior. The officer later described responses to the disaster from the NSA and its counterpart the Norwegian Intelligence Service in an account he wrote for an NSA internal news site, SIDtoday. The account, provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden and published with this article, indicates that Norwegian intelligence was aware the catastrophe had occurred two days earlier than it has said was the case, and provides new details on the timeline of the Russian naval response to the explosions, underscoring the extent to which the crisis was mismanaged.
“Three and a half hours passed before any [Russian] suspicion of problems on board OSCAR II 850 arose.”
For Putin, that mismanagement stood among the most prominent examples of how Russia’s military and diplomatic capabilities broke down after the fall of the Soviet Union, staining the early years of his presidency and ultimately spurring him to tighten his political grip.
The Barents is a contentious place, not only for its Arctic climate, but because it hugs the Russian and Norwegian coastlines. There, over decades of Cold War tensions, Western powers stood at their Soviet adversary’s doorstep, before geography and geopolitics merged to seal the fate of the 118 sailors who died aboard the Kursk.
Much remains unknown about the Russian navy’s handling of the disaster, and the official Russian narrative was not without its switchbacks. Initially, Moscow claimed that the Kursk collided with another vessel in the Barents, causing it to sink. In fact, a leaking torpedo blew up during a training exercise, Russia’s official investigation later concluded. Russian authorities also initially said that all aboard perished almost immediately; in fact, 23 sailors survived the blasts and sinking, likely for at least several hours, if not days, according to evidence later found by divers. Their resilience made it all the more lamentable that it took the Russian navy more than 15 hours to launch a rescue, which ultimately failed. As SIDtoday recounted, the Kursk’s sinking “occurred without any distress calls or communications of its problems.” By the time the Kursk landed on the seafloor, it was unable to contact the Northern Fleet command, and the aftermath of the explosion demonstrated a communication failure in which the Russian navy effectively lost track of its submarine.
“It seems as if the Northern Fleet was not aware that the explosions had occurred on one of their vessels,” an NIS report quoted in the SIDtoday article stated. “Thus, 3 ½ hours passed before any suspicion of problems on board OSCAR II 850 arose. Another 1 ½ hour passed before the sub call dissemination activity started.” Experts believe this dissemination activity was the fleet’s first attempts to communicate with the Kursk. These delays do not appear to have been reported previously.
SIDtoday also stated that the NIS report was issued on “Saturday 12 August,” the same day as the Kursk explosions. This is significant because the Norwegian military told the press in the wake of the incident that it did not realize an accident had occurred until Monday, the same day Russia announced the sinking — but the NIS report makes clear that Norway knew a Russian sub had been in a severe accident. Quoted at length in SIDtoday, it gives timings for the two explosions that are specific to the minute, adding:
THIS CATASTROPHIC CASUALTY CAUSING ENTRY OF WATER INTO THE NOSE COMPARTMENTS AND PL850 [Kursk] HIT THE BOTTOM PROBABLY A FEW SECONDS LATER [sic]. BASED ON UPDATED DATA, PL850 OSCAR II WAS LOCATED AT BOTTOM OF THE SEA IN POSITION 6936.59N 3734.32E ATA DEPTH OF 108 METERS WITH PERISCOPE AND ANTENNAS ERECTED.
A Norwegian spy ship, FS Marjata, was tracking the Northern Fleet exercise and collected information related to the Kursk, military officials told Norwegian newspapers, including Dagbladet and Bergens Tidende. The spy ship was within 15 nautical miles of the Kursk accident, said the latter publication; a Norwegian Defense Command spokesperson told the paper that the military recorded the sound of the explosions but did not register anything unusual at the time, only noticing the explosions when reviewing the recordings after Russia disclosed the accident on Monday.
Dagbladet reported that the Ministry of Defense said just after the accident, on Monday, that it received indications over the weekend of an accident involving a Russian nuclear submarine. But by Tuesday night, the ministry backtracked, telling Dagbladet that the information it received over the weekend could be interpreted in various different ways and that only on Monday was it certain that an accident had occurred.
The Norwegian report, apparently issued Saturday, gives timings for explosions specific to the minute. But Norway said it did not realize an accident occurred until Monday.
But journalist Robert Moore, in a 2003 book on the accident, “A Time to Die,” reported that Marjata’s “data are sent in real time to Oslo for analysis by naval intelligence specialists,” bolstering the idea that NIS could have been aware of the accident on Saturday, as indicated by SIDtoday.
NIS declined to comment for this article. The Russian government did not respond to a request for comment. NSA did not comment.
According to the SIDtoday document, “It was clear that the [Russian] Northern Fleet command had no information on the condition of the sub or crew” just after the sinking, and that once they managed to locate the Kursk, “the Russians did not have the ability to reach the sub to conduct any type of rescue/extraction operations.”
As European media began reporting on a “missing” Russian submarine in the following days, Britain, the U.S., and Norway offered publicly and, reportedly, through backchannel communications to aid in location and rescue efforts. In a move that would mar the early days of Putin’s leadership, the Northern Fleet waited until Wednesday — four days after the Kursk sank — before accepting any help from foreign powers. Norwegian and British rescuers wouldn’t arrive until that Saturday, a week after the accident.
Fourteen months after the disaster, the Dutch company Mammoet lead the initiative to lift the 17,000-ton submarine from more than 300 feet beneath the surface of the Barents. The recovery operation, which ultimately took 15 hours, proved particularly sensitive due to the twin nuclear reactors and stock of torpedoes and cruise missiles aboard the vessel. Upon surfacing, the Kursk was towed to dry dock at Roslyakovo.
How Kursk Lead to “Clear Subordination” Under Putin
The dysfunctional response to the crisis proved an unflattering revelation of the status of the Russian navy at the turn of the century, according to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a Virginia nonprofit that operates the Center for Naval Analyses and developed early techniques for U.S. anti-submarine warfare. After a decade of economic and political instability following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia’s defense infrastructure was underfunded and relied heavily on vestiges of Soviet military power. “Russia inherited a large percentage of the Soviet Union’s navy with a tiny fraction of its budget,” Kofman told The Intercept. Thus, Russia’s navy had on its hands equipment “meant to fight World War III with NATO,” Kofman said, without the need for such force and without the finances to maintain it.
Kofman also recalled that the Kursk’s grandeur — “an undersea atomic guided missile cruiser, as well as a capital ship and one of the largest submarines you can find at sea” — compounded the already unflattering optics surrounding the crisis. (A “capital ship” is one of a navy’s most important vessels and typically among its largest.)
“Putin learned you’ve got to get a lid on TV and control how they portray you.”
The crisis struck at a sensitive moment in Russia’s history. As the country was renegotiating its footing on the world stage, the Kursk disaster undermined equivalencies Russia drew between itself and other major Western powers. According to Sean Guillory, a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, a desire to reassert Russian geopolitical leadership offers one potential explanation for Putin’s unwillingness to accept assistance from Western powers immediately after the disaster. But for Guillory, there is also a security argument to be made, insofar as accepting military aid from NATO members would potentially expose sensitive Russian military information. “You can be sure that if the Americans are going to assist and rescue a submarine, they’re going to be taking notes,” Guillory said.
Whatever factors ultimately informed Putin’s delayed response to the crisis and to Western offers of aid, the historical moment Putin found himself in heightened the implications of the tragedy. Guillory pointed out that the events of August 2000 occurred at a time when, despite the formal demise of the USSR in 1991, “the Soviet system is still continuing to collapse,” the Kursk proving one of its most telling relics.
From a public relations standpoint, both domestically and internationally, the Kursk disaster was what one might euphemistically call a teachable moment. Media coverage of Putin’s handling of the crisis was less than flattering, largely because Putin had yet to yoke Russian media firmly to his bidding, according to Tony Wood, author of the recent book, “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.” “The lessons Putin learned were, you’ve got to be a bit smoother, and you’ve also got to get a lid on TV and control how they portray you, otherwise they could finish your presidency,” said Wood. While families of missing sailors sought information on the state of their loved ones in the days following the blasts aboard the sub, Putin could be seen on vacation at a Black Sea resort at Sochi. Though he did go on Russian national television to take responsibility for the mismanagement of the disaster in late August, he also gave a remarkable interview to CNN journalist Larry King some weeks later that demonstrated an altogether different sort of statesmanship. In response to King’s inquiry into just what happened to the submarine, Putin responded flatly, through a translator: “It sank.”
Such obfuscations from Russian leadership did not go unchallenged, however. The NSA document recounts another dubious development in the weeks following the disaster that recalled “shades of the KGB in the 50s.” During a meeting between Russian officials and the families of some of the Kursk sailors in late August, Nadezhda Tylik, the mother of Kursk sailor Sergei Tylik, was yelling at First Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov when a trench coat-clad figure appeared behind her with a syringe in hand. In a video that aired on several major European news outlets, Tylik can be seen receiving an injection before collapsing into the arms of surrounding military officials, her diatribe interrupted. The SIDtoday document, as well as a number of media outlets, described the event as a forced sedation intended to silence Tylik. In a subsequent statement, Tylik countered the sedation narrative, claiming that the syringe captured on video contained medication for her heart. Tylik declined to offer comment for The Intercept. “Sorry,” she wrote via email, “but it is hard for me to remember those tragic days and for that reason I refuse to do interviews of any kind.”
Much as the disaster and its aftermath forever altered the lives of those who lost loved ones aboard the Kursk, so too did it change the tenor of Putin’s distinct flavor of statecraft. According to Wood, what emerged in the aftermath of Kursk was a strict adherence to “the vertical of power,” a catchphrase ascribed to Putin in the 2000s. Wood describes this as the “clear subordination and hierarchical functioning of all parts of the government,” essentially “a strict chain of command.” While this effectively sounds like any well-functioning form of governance, it also became associated with what critics view as Moscow’s emerging authoritarian predilections. The concept of the vertical of power actually predated Putin. “Yeltsin talked about it in the 1990s as well,” said Wood. “The difference is that, at that point in time, it was talked about as something that didn’t exist.” While the Kursk might not have singlehandedly prompted Putin to impose a stronger grasp on Russia’s media and military apparatuses, the scandal and dysfunction surrounding the disaster do delineate a clear before and after in Putin’s political and diplomatic trajectory. Indeed, by the mid- to late 2000s, Russia had experienced significant economic growth and had made notable funding and infrastructural advancements within its military. “If a crisis like the Kursk had happened several years later, Russia probably would have had the money and the wherewithal to handle it themselves,” said Wood.