In November 2021, retired Russian Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, the former commander of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, claimed that the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster was caused by a collision with a NATO sub.
That unproven allegation defies the official conclusion that Russia’s worst post-Soviet naval catastrophe was actually the result of a faulty torpedo.
Popov was commander of the Northern Fleet when the Kursk exploded and sank during naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea.
He said in an interview with the state RIA Novosti news agency that it was his opinion that a NATO submarine had been shadowing the Kursk and inadvertently bumped into the Russian boat. Popov was unable to identify the Western submarine and also acknowledged that he had no proof to back up the bold claim.
At the time of the interview, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Popov’s claim and instead pointed to the official probe. Of course, it should be noted that Popov had good reason to point fingers – as he was blamed for his slow and bungled response following the August 12, 2000 incident that reportedly involved two explosions.
The Kursk Accident
The Kursk, which had been named after the July 1943 Battle of Kursk, the largest tank engagement in history, was one of eleven nuclear-powered Project 949A Antey (Oscar II) boats built at Seveorvinsk and was one of the five assigned to the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. The other six were assigned to the Pacific Fleet, and while three more were planned, construction was eventually halted.
The boat was operating in the northern waters of the Barents Sea and was set to take part in a major exercise – the first since the dissolution of the Soviet Union nine years earlier. The exercise involved four attack submarines, the Northern Fleet flagship battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, and numerous smaller craft. On August 12, at 11:28 local time, an explosion occurred as the crew was set to fire torpedoes.
Most of the 118 members of the crew were reported to have been killed instantly.
As the boat sank in relatively shallow waters that were just 350 feet (108 meters), a total of 23 sailors were able to flee to a rear compartment of the Kursk, and wait for rescue. The Russian Navy failed to act quickly, even turning down offers of Western assistance.
Instead, the Russians sent mini-submarines, which made repeated but futile attempts to hook onto the Kursk’s submarine escape hatch. Only after a week of vain attempts did Moscow invite Norwegian divers to assist. They were able to open the hatches in just hours, but it was too late to save anyone.
The 23 sailors were all dead.
Some Russian navy officials have suggested that the crew members who survived the initial blast could have been alive for at least three days. An “official investigation” later stated that all would have died of carbon monoxide poisoning within eight hours.
After the Kursk’s wreckage was recovered, the accident was ultimately traced to one of the boat’s Type-65-76A torpedo. Though that weapon is powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier with a single hit, the Soviet Union inexplicably designed the torpedo to run on hydrogen peroxide fuel, which is highly volatile and requires careful handling.
The crew had not been adequately trained to handle those torpedoes or the fuel.
The salvage operation, which reportedly cost around $65 million, required assistance from the Dutch marine salvage companies Smit International and Mammoet. It was the largest salvage operation of its type ever accomplished, yet, it took the Mammoet-Smit International Consortium just over 15 hours. The Kursk was lifted on steel cables lowered from a Giant 4 barge and put in clamps under it, while its protruding conning tower and tail fins tightly fitted into holes carved in the vessel.
“I’m very proud that we made a success,” Frans van Seumeren, president of the Dutch Mammoet company, told reporters in October 2001. “We worked hard, sometimes it was difficult but in the end we succeeded.”
In the years that followed, Russian media claimed that two U.S. submarines and a British boat had been spotted in the area near the Russian naval exercise when the Kursk disaster occurred. U.S. officials did acknowledge that an American submarine was in the area but denied that it collided with the Kursk.
NATO officials said the same thing about U.S. and U.K. vessels.
Putin’s ‘First Lie’
The government cover-up and its poor handling seriously hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prestige, and it has even been seen as a “turning point” for modern Russia. In 2015, Russian lawyer Boris Kuznetsov described the accident as Putin’s “first lie,” but it clearly wasn’t the Russian leader’s last one.
“The lies began with the sinking of the Kursk,” Kuznetsov, who represented the families of 55 of the Kursk’s seamen, told Radio Free Europe. “When the Kursk sank, the government began interfering with the legal and law-enforcement systems. The government began gathering all the mass media under its control. The entire process of undermining democracy in Russia, in many regards, began with this.”
He was forced to leave Russia after he was prosecuted for allegedly revealing state top secrets. The criminal case against Kuznetsov was reportedly initiated at the personal request of Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev.
In February 2008, Kuznetsov was granted asylum in the U.S. – but in 2013 Moscow issued new arrest orders for him. In other words, there was a conspiracy involving the Kursk, but it involved the efforts to bring justice to the families of the crew, not one involving NATO.
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Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.