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Kursk Submarine Disaster

The recent Kursk submarine disaster points not only to the looming technological crisis in the defence sector but also to the problems arising from a rigid bureaucratic model of governance.

On August 23, Russia officially mourned the tragic death of 118 crew of the Kursk submarine who had met a watery grave more than a week before in the Barnets sea near the Arctic. As a part of the mourning Vladimir Putin, who is both the president of the Russian Federation and the chief of the armed forces, was scheduled to attend a wreath-tossing ceremony aboard a battle ship near Murmansk at Russia’s Northern Fleet. But, as reported in the press, this was cancelled as a mark of respect to the sentiments of the relatives of the victims who expressed their protest demanding that the bodies of the 118 crew members be retrieved first. In a significant political move, on the day of the mourning, Putin accepted personal responsibility and guilt for the tragedy. This seems to be a calculated and bold initiative by him against widespread public criticism levelled against him in the country, which has also affected his own popularity as an effective new president of Russia. Moreover, Putin took another step – he shielded the defence minister Igor Sergeyev, navy’s commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyodev and the Northern fleet commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov who offered to resign owning responsibility for the tragedy and whose resignations were demanded by the Russian independent media and the public. But Putin insisted that while firing officials in the crisis ‘would be the easiest but most erroneous way out’, before investigations which would provide an objective picture of both the cause of the accident and rescue efforts were complete. Thus even as, at least temporarily, Putin has dampened down much of the heat of public criticism concerning the Kursk tragedy, this event has brought to the surface shortcomings and weaknesses in the functioning of the Russian government in this crisis situation and about the state of the military establishment in the post-Soviet Russia.

As the news broke that the Kursk submarine sank in the Barnets sea on or about August 12 the independent Russian media and Russians at large started raising questions concerning mishandling of the crisis – conflicting and often inaccurate information given out by the government agencies about the fate of the crew members; absence of the president from Moscow to take decisions to save the lives of the crew; inordinate delay in seeking foreign assistance in rescue operation, and so on.

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