How Presidents Putin and Clinton Played Ball Over the Submarine Disaster

The icy waters swirling round the sunken Russian nuclear submarine, the “Kursk” are murky, but murkier still are the true circumstances of the disaster that has gripped world attention, obscured as they are by politically motivated disinformation.
It now appears that the submarine went down during a Russian North Fleet exercise on Saturday, Aug.12, around noon – not Sunday, Aug13, as first reported. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for any of the crew to have survived the two explosions that ripped through the middle of the craft, knocked out its systems, shut off its reactors and caused it to drop like a stone to the bottom of the Barents Sea. Therefore the constant, hopeless rescue attempts reported day after day this week, and the belated appeal to NATO for assistance, had little to do with saving the seamens’ lives. The motives underlying them are quite different.
According to debkafile‘s intelligence experts, Russian President Vladimir Putin understands his political survival is on the line. He could face a public opinion firing squad for the way the disaster was handled, and is therefore manipulating public disclosures in order to minimize the political damage. The United States and Britain, for their part, are exploiting the submarine disaster to turn the screw on the Kremlin to cut the Russian military and its sub force down to size and reorganize them to meet NATO standards. As concern mounted this week for the Russian president’s standing, they decided to go along with the Russian president’s maneuvers.
According to debkafile‘s informants, the Russians were caught wrong-footed from the start. Washington was the first to hear of the explosion aboard the “Kursk”, less than an hour after it happened, from the NATO Supreme Allied command in Norfolk Virginia, which learned about it from the USNS surveillance surface ship, “Loyal”. An emergency situation room was quickly set up at the White House National Security Council, headed by National Security Adviser, Samuel Berger.
The news reached Putin four hours after the incident, three hours behind the Americans, because no one wanted to interrupt his vacation at the Black Sea retreat of Sochi. He reacted swiftly and politically, setting up a rescue operation under Ily Klebanov, the deputy prime minister with responsibility for Russia’s military industries, a move that effectively placed the army and fleet commanders under civilian authority. Klebanov was informed he would lead the inquiry into the disaster, when it was over. The Russian president thus signaled his mistrust of the army and navy commands, pre-empting any attempts they might make to twist the submarine calamity round to pin the blame on the civilian government.
The Klebanov appointment abruptly put the navy’s hierarchy in an intolerable position – forced to defer to the deputy prime minister, on the one hand, yet subject to orders coming down the Russian navy’s chain of command, headed by Admiral Vladimir Kuroyodov, on the other. To cover their backs, officers out front demanded all their orders be written and signed, regardless of source, a procedure that caused painful delays in the rescue operation and havoc in the reports coming out of Moscow.
The first the Russian public heard of the “Kursk” being stranded on the seabed was on Monday, 48 hours after the world, the cause given as a collision with an unknown vessel. The time: Sunday. After that, official reports coming out of Moscow changed from one minute to the next. The following day, an explosion of a torpedo hatch was cited; next, an explosion in the torpedo store in the front of the vessel; Wednesday, official spokesmen reverted to the collision with a ship explanation, adding that the Russian fleet was already in hot pursuit of the mystery vessel. That explanation was evidently dredged up to allay mounting popular rage at the agonizing delays in the rescue operation and disbelief in official utterances. The size of the lost crew, for instance, varied from108 to113 and134 and, lastly, to 116; spokesmen could not agree on whether or not tapping or “acoustic” signals were coming from inside the submarine, or whether the oxygen aboard the entombed vessel would last until Aug. 25, or as announced Thursday, only until Friday, Aug 18.
Aware of the Russian regime’s distress at home, American sources did not contradict Moscow’s references to tappings from inside the crippled submarine, understanding they had been issued to gain Putin recovery time. Furthermore, Sandy Berger called deputy minister Klebanov and Putin’s aides in Sochi on Monday and offered US aid for the rescue. Nonetheless, US defense secretary William Cohen phoned the Kremlin next day to repeat the offer. Both were rebuffed, after informing Moscow that preparations were in train in Norfolk, Virginia, for the “Sorbet Royale” naval maneuver that aimed at focusing on submarine rescue systems in the Mediterranean. The exercise was to begin on Sep 5, and the two American officials offered to halt preparations and detach submarine rescue squads to help save the “Kursk” crew.
Wednesday, President Clinton had a long conversation, 25 minutes, with President Putin. Clinton dragged it out to test the situation in the Kremlin. He gained the impression that Putin was running scared, fearful that there was no way he could escape crushing responsibility for the submarine disaster that might even cost him the presidency. That fear kept him in Sochi instead of taking the obvious step of returning to the helm in Moscow.
The submarine disaster catches Putin at a vulnerable moment, indicating that he still has plenty of work to do firm up his grip on power. According to American sources, last week’s bomb explosion in the Moscow underpass near the Kremlin was almost certainly the work of political conspirators, not Moslem fanatical terrorists. Moreover, when the submarine disaster struck, the Russian president had just suffered a serious loss of face from the sudden detraction by the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Il, of the offer he made to give up missiles in exchange for help with developing space launches. Putin gained tremendous credit for obtaining that offer in a meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang shortly before joining the G-8 summit in Okinawa. Kim Jong Il’s assertion that he had brought the idea up to Mr Putin not as a serious proposal but “laughingly”, humiliated the Russian president.
So as not to make things worse for him, the Americans and the British are going through with the rescue maneuver, knowing it to be a lost cause, while not wavering from their demand for a major reduction in Russian military strength. Putin’s belated approach to NATO for help was made in the knowledge that the British LR5 rescue vessel, accompanied by 12 Royal Navy divers, could not reach the disaster zone before late Saturday. The last communique from Moscow, that it would be too late because the oxygen on the “Kursk” could only last the crew until Friday, was designed to prepare the Russian people for the ghastly discovery that all the crew were dead.

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