Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

August 24, 2000

The Kursk Affair: When Nations Collide

There can hardly have been a better example of the media acting as adjuncts of government than their coverage of the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk. From the start, there was to be little deviation from the storyline – as familiar as it is comforting. A decrepit submarine manned by a worthy but incompetent and underpaid crew went down to the bottom of the Barents Sea. The cause of the accident was almost certainly the shoddy level of maintenance that prevails throughout the Russian military. (Russia, it has been repeated ad nauseum spends a measly $5 billion on defense as against America's healthy $300 billion.) When news of the catastrophe reached Russia's commanders, they flapped their arms helplessly and put out incorrect and contradictory statements. The West, with its vastly superior technical know-how and generosity of spirit stood by eager to help. But the Russians, proud and paranoid as ever, rejected intervention from outsiders.

While the Keystone cops undertook one hopeless attempt after another to save the submarine crew, the 118 men under the sea slowly suffocated. The lessons then are clear. As CNN put it: "The parlous state of the Russian military raised questions among observers as to why the Russian navy was conducting a 30-ship exercise, including sophisticated submarines like the Kursk." It was a point echoed in a Washington Post editorial (and almost everywhere else): "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?" There can be only one answer to the question. The Russians must give up their increasingly pathetic attempts at trying to remain a superpower and accept the global dominance of a US-led West.

Writing in Slate, Anne Applebaum put this argument at its starkest. Russia has a choice, she explained. "It can go on 'pretending to be a great power,' competing with the United States…or it can recognize that its imperial days are over. Putin can salvage something from this crisis, so to speak, only if he is intelligent enough to use it as an excuse to retrench, to focus on Russia's ailing economy…to start thinking about the plight of ordinary Russians rather than the fate of 'Mother Russia.'" If the Russians are lucky, they may yet get to live the happy life accorded to small insignificant European powers (whose fate is to be at the beck and call of great powers): "President Putin could cut Russia's military expenditure and military ambitions. Russia's annual budget expenditure, after all, is a quarter the size of Holland's. Although it would take a brave leader to reduce Russia's armed forces to Dutch levels, to do so may be Russia's last chance at retaining Holland's international influence." Applebaum's choice of Holland is interesting. Next to Great Britain, there is no other country in the world that follows America's lead as slavishly as Holland.

"The Soviet era placed a low value on the lives of ordinary Russians," intones the Financial Times, "nowhere more than in the armed forces where political leaders have accepted loss of life on a scale unacceptable in the west." The West does not accept loss of life when it comes to trained soldiers. But it has no qualms about inflicting large-scale loss of life on others – particularly unarmed civilians. Concern about Serb casualties was not exactly uppermost in the minds of policymakers last year as they sent the bombers and missiles happily on their way. The Financial Times complains about "the residual Soviet obsession with secrecy, shown by the reluctance to accept western help and the limited and contradictory information released to the public. Almost all the known facts have been revised or modified over the week: the location and depth of the submarine on the seabed; the number of sailors on board; the status of rescue efforts; whether signs of life were detected; how long the oxygen can last; even when the accident happened." It is, of course, unheard of in the West to provide erroneous or confused information about an accident that later needs to be revised. The TWA 800 disaster took place more than four years ago. Yet there is still dispute as to the cause of the crash. During the investigation, any number of theories have been put forward and widely accepted.

Moreover, is it likely that if one of our nuclear-powered submarines went down, the US Government would ask for help from other countries? Would the prospect of Russian divers poking around the wreckage be greeted with enthusiasm in Washington? Indeed, can we even be certain that we would ever find out about a US submarine disaster? NATO powers that detected the underwater explosions could easily be prevailed on to keep this information to themselves. As for the Russians, who would believe their claims to have evidence of a US submarine blowing up? Certainly not our gullible media.

"Linked to the secrecy," the FT continues, "is the enduring refusal to make anyone personally accountable for the submarine disaster, or the rescue operation." This editorial was written a few days after the Kursk sank. No one has any idea yet what happened in the Barents Sea, but already the FT is demanding dismissals. It is mass firings before any of the facts have been established that marked the Soviet era.

Let us repeat: We have no idea what it was that sent the Kursk to the bottom of the Barents Sea. We do not know whether all or most of the crew perished following the massive explosions. We do not know whether a Western rescue submarine could have made a successful docking or not. We do not know if anyone at all could have been rescued. Even if we do not know what happened, it is clear already that the initial cozy, comforting story of bumbling Ivan has little bearing on reality. The Russians have insisted from the beginning that the cause of the accident was a collision with another – possibly British, possibly American – submarine. The damaged foreign submarine then limped its way to a Norwegian port for repairs. Both the British and the US Governments have denied this. Needless to say, the media have accepted their denials without further investigation.

Yet the United States has admitted that two of its submarines were in the vicinity of the Kursk just before the accident, monitoring the Russian naval exercises. During the orgy of denunciations of Russian imperial ambitions, no one thought it relevant to ask why there were US submarines in the Barents Sea – hardly the US coastline? The Russians claim to have found fragments of a foreign submarine near where the Kursk sank. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has asserted that shortly after the Kursk went down, men on two Russian ships detected signs of a large underwater object in the vicinity, about the same size as the Russian submarine. Moreover, at the same time the Russians observed a signal buoy of the type Western fleets use to send emergency messages by satellite to their command bases.

Though the British and the Americans strenuously deny being involved in a collision, it is "apparent that both governments," according to a Reuters story, "were withholding information under their own longstanding refusal to comment on submarine spying operations directed at the Russian fleet." In other words, there is not the slightest reason to believe their denials. Whether or not a collision took place, NATO would deny it. "When Russian officials at NATO headquarters inquired whether 'even one ship was there where the accident took place, they told us no, there were no NATO ships there,' the official said, adding that Russian officials had reported back that they overheard 'conversation that if this incident had happened,' NATO officials 'would never acknowledge it.'"

The New York Times, in a rare moment of candor, revealed the other day, that "during the cold war…on more than a dozen occasions, Russian and Western submarines banged into one another." Moreover, the Times goes on, "the Russians have long resented the fact that many of the collisions occurred in or near their waters and, in their view, amounted to hit-and-run jobs, as American and British spy submarines quickly fled to safety." "In or near the waters" – so much then for Russia's aggressive imperial designs! There are no instances of collisions taking place in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. Thus Russian suspicions about US submarines are scarcely without foundation. A recent AP story recounted the 1968 sinking of a Soviet submarine. "Russian officials long have suspected that the Soviet sub K-129 was struck by an American submarine, the USS Swordfish. But the US Navy says the Soviet vessel, armed with nuclear missiles and with a crew of 98, suffered a catastrophic internal explosion when it sank in the central Pacific on March 11, 1968. As recently as last fall, Russian government officials complained that Washington was covering up its involvement." The Russians say that six days after the accident, the USS Swordfish docked at Yokosuka, Japan to repair a bent periscope. The Americans claim that the Swordfish collided with an ice pack and was 2,000 miles away from the K-129 when it sank. However, the AP story goes on, "Moscow has requested the Swordfish's deck logs, to trace its movements, but the Pentagon has refused. The Swordfish apparently had a hand in some highly sensitive operations before and after the K-129 incident."

Clearly then, a very different story is now beginning to emerge. The Russian naval exercises took place in the Barents Sea, waters absolutely critical to Russia's security. If NATO were to succeed in blocking the Barents Sea during a military conflict, Russia's fleet would be denied access to the Atlantic. At the time the Kursk sank, the Russian navy was engaged on defensive maneuvers in anticipation of a possible Western blockade. There was nothing here of an imperial program, getting to the Mediterranean, challenging the United States or any of the other fanciful projects that the retarded Cold Warriors have been speculating about. NATO, on the other hand, was engaged on a spying mission. We do not yet know if a collision did take place. But given the record of US deceit, it is at the very least a distinct possibility.

The armchair warriors are unable to make up their minds whether to gloat at Russia's enfeebled military, or to dismiss its fear of the West as "paranoia." However, Russia's security concerns are very real. Three of its former allies are now members of a rival military organization. The United States threatens to invite the three Baltic States to join NATO. If this were to happen, Russia's access to the Baltic Sea not mention the Atlantic Ocean would be in severe jeopardy. Meanwhile, the United States continues its drive into the Caucasus, creating client-states among former republics of the Soviet Union, and threatening to make of with the oil riches of the Caspian – critical to Russia's economic strength. In the Balkans, Russia's closest ally, Serbia, is under perpetual threat of armed assault. Both Democrats and Republicans promise to build a missile defense shield, rendering Russia's nuclear missiles null and void.

The Russians, the pundits tell us, must give up their imperial ambitions. What this means is that they should stop fooling themselves that they can defend their country against the United States. They should settle for being a giant Holland – as supine as it is irrelevant. Let us hope the Russians ignore this advice. The issue goes beyond Russia's security. There are many countries today that look to Russia as the only deterrent to the global tyranny of the United States. Only the existence of a rival superpower can ensure that small countries will enjoy a measure of independence. Russia is today the last, best hope of mankind.

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