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As It Happened -

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(generated from captions) STATELY DRUM ROLL

March 2000. first time as President of Russia. Vladimir Putin is elected for the

in front of him - He has four years national pride, four years in which to restore and curb the oligarchs, reinforce the army

powerful under Boris Yeltsin. the new multi-millionaires who became Compared with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, is like a step back in history Vladimir Putin's investiture to the time of the tsars. Russia has opened up to the world. During the last 15 years and with it a certain chaos. A form of democracy has emerged

What will Vladimir Putin do? reconstruct the pride of the nation The new president's first aim is to as the major world power and to re-establish Russia it had been during the Cold War. he takes the first step. Four months after his investiture, At the end of July of the Russian fleet is organised, an impressive parade of the most important summer exercise marking the beginning since the Soviet Union. that Russia's might It is to remind the world in the oceans of the planet. is not to be challenged Little does Vladimir Putin suspect in the depths of the ocean, that a tragedy will take place

jeopardising his own political future and placing the whole world of a possible Third World War. on the threshold The exercise begins a few days later in the extreme north of Russia. in the Barents Sea, situated

fighter planes and submarines Scores of warships, in one small area. are all concentrated Amongst them, the Kursk, submarines of the Antey class. the latest of the 10 nuclear attack

as a football stadium The Kursk is as large as an eight-storey building. and as high No submarine in Western fleets for power and weaponry, can compare with it

its double hull makes it invincible. and the Russians claim that are the 24 Granit missiles Amongst the high-tech weapons nuclear warheads with multi-directional

and an automatic guiding system. a nuclear-strike capacity Each one has

dropped on Hiroshima. 40 times that of the bomb with an incredible rocket torpedo The Kursk is also equipped called the Shkval. able to decipher its secrets. Until now, no other country has been creates an envelope of gas, A system called super-cavitation eliminating friction with the water, at more than 320 miles an hour, enabling it to travel

than any Western torpedo. almost 10 times faster to improve on it. And the Russians are continuing It was this fearsome weapon of the Kursk tragedy. that was perhaps at the heart at 300 knots A couple of tonnes of stored energy. is an awful lot It really is a bullet through the hull of another ship and it would pass cleanly without the benefit of a warhead.

Eight days after his investiture arrest of an American, Edmond Pope, Vladimir Putin signs an order for the on the Shkval torpedo. accused of spying at the end of July 2000. The trial is held just a fortnight later. The Kursk tragedy occurs intelligence officer, Pope, a retired US navy in sensitive technology. is today a businessman of spying, there's no doubt Although he claims to be innocent

for American intelligence services. that his investigations are important in an exchange program in 1995. We were introduced to Shkval could travel 300 miles per hour, They told us they had a vehicle that 250 knots submerged, and we were sceptical. We didn't believe it could be done. they'd be open to work with us Well, they'd done it,

and find commercial applications. President Yeltsin's administration, Pope obtains some of the plans during can be bought more or less legally. when anything and everything the one in which I was arrested, So the last trip, in fact was my 27th trip to Russia. secret documents in his possession, Pope is arrested in his hotel, with formerly known as the KGB. by the FSB,

of the Shkval, Anatoly Babkin, He's in discussion with the inventor who is also placed under arrest. As usual for charges of espionage, is held behind closed doors. Edmond Pope's trial to 20 years' hard labour He is sentenced after nine months of negotiations but is released between presidents Putin and Clinton. with the Kursk No one links up Pope's arrest

was clearly to prevent him but his timely imprisonment to the Americans. from passing on any more information spy ships are already on the scene. At the start of the exercise, foreign have little information Intelligence services than usual. and they're more numerous are two American attack submarines Amongst others and the USS Toledo - - the USS Memphis

a British nuclear submarine, satellites and intelligence planes a NATO intelligence ship, American the Mariata. and a Norwegian spy vessel, 'Scientific American' reported later had received information that US intelligence services

invited to observe the exercise. that Chinese officials had been reconstruction of Russia Vladimir Putin's to enemies of the United States, includes selling weapons political development of his country. which he needs for the economic and he is playing a dangerous game. By courting the Chinese, I have heard from different sources officials aboard as observers. that there were two or three Chinese have purchased Shkvals. I know that the Chinese

So if you had observers there, to sell more advanced versions. they were courting the Chinese in the Barents Sea In reality, this naval exercise of a highly strategic operation, is at the heart to a major world conflict one that could lead involving Russia, America and China. 8.51 a.m., On Saturday August 12th, tower of the flagship Peter the Great the Kursk announces to the control to periscope depth that it is diving 60 feet to prepare the firing of the torpedo. 11.28 a.m. all is set to fire the new torpedo. Inside the Kursk, Vladimir Putin leaves the Kremlin In Moscow, for his holidays on the Black Sea. an explosion takes place At this very moment, in the torpedo compartment. in the front of the submarine The general alarm is sounded. in the double hull. A breach has been torn DRAMATIC MUSIC

ALARM SIREN Normally, the commander would press the emergency button, releasing the air ballast to send the submarine back up to the surface. But he doesn't. Nor does he signal for the distress buoy to be released. On the contrary, instead of heading for the surface,

the engines are boosted to full throttle. All the evidence points to an attack from another vessel. Two minutes and 15 seconds later, there is a second explosion. The second one, which had caught our eye initially, was very powerful,

100 times bigger than the first. The second explosion tears an enormous breach in the front of the submarine. The Kursk plunges 300 feet to the ocean floor. The crew shut down the two nuclear reactors, and 23 men out of the 118 manage to scramble to the rear of the vessel where the escape hatch is situated. All the foreign vessels, as well as the Russians, had recorded the two explosions. And yet Admiral Popov, in charge of the exercise,

orders the flagship to leave the area. He returns to the mainland by helicopter and disappears for several hours. An ultra-secret mini-submarine, the AS-15, is immediately sent down to inspect the Kursk with a special intelligence unit of deep-sea divers. The press later demands why they weren't used for the rescue operation, but the authorities remain mute and their investigation remains top secret. Later in the afternoon, depth charges are dropped around the Kursk. According to the Russians, it is to summon the submarine to surface. According to foreign experts, it is to warn vessels to keep away from the area.

The Kursk is in very shallow depths for a submarine about to fire a torpedo. Even on the ocean floor, the wreck can be seen from the surface.

If it were placed in a vertical position its tail would emerge from the water by 150 feet and the escape hatch itself would be well above the surface.

DRAMATIC MUSIC Despite this, the Russian navy declares

that it took more than 30 hours to locate it. It is only two days later, on Monday the 14th of August,

that the tragedy is announced on television.

A fax is issued to the press by a navy spokesman, declaring the first official lies... "Kursk on sea bed Sunday 13th. "Minor technical incident. "No nuclear arms on board."

No warship ever goes to sea without...

a few of its normal weapons. Although you intend to fire practice weapons as part of the exercise, you may be diverted during the exercise to a real incident. The families of the submariners arrive in Murmansk, the Kursk's naval base,

still uncertain about the fate of the crew. Four days after the accident, no one has been informed of the exact names of the men on board that day.

Kursk, like all nuclear submarines, has two crews. The families are not told which of them was on duty. A journalist from 'Komsomolskaya Pravda' finally obtains the information from an officer of the fleet

in return for an 18,000 rouble bribe. It is on reading this newspaper that the crew's relatives finally learn the names of those on board. Admiral Motsak, one of the officers in charge of the exercise,

makes an announcement reviving hopes. "We know that there are survivors tapping out SOS messages on the hull. "These messages inform us that they have enough oxygen for 10 days." Five days after the public announcement of the tragedy, Putin addresses the journalists from his holiday resort on the Black Sea.

One week goes by before the authorities and naval officials finally agree to face the families. Television newsreels show a mother attacking Ilya Klebanov, the Vice-Prime Minister.

This woman's outburst is unthinkable in Russia. A doctor approaches her with a tranquilliser ready to be injected.

The doctor quickly disappears. The woman turns around, only to see the army officers enveloping her. She collapses, unconscious, into their arms.

The following day, these disturbing images have disappeared from Russian newsreels. In pure Soviet style, officers firmly invite the press to leave the room.

One week is lost because of lies, deceit and political negotiations. One week in which the surviving crew could have been saved.

Nevertheless, a British cargo plane leaves the UK with the LR5, a highly sophisticated rescue submarine.

Initially we thought we'd get approval to go to Severomorsk

or wherever they were running their operation. Sadly, we weren't given approval to enter Russian airspace. Best thing to do then was to get on the Normand Pioneer with the rescue vessel. We enlisted the help of the Norwegian army. The rescue vessel, the Normand Pioneer,

takes several long days to cover the distance to the site of the tragedy.

Norway also sends out another vessel, the Seaway Eagle,

with professional Norwegian and British divers on board.

For a whole week the Russians had insisted that due to poor weather conditions, strong currents, the steep list of the submarine and the damage created by the explosion, evacuating the survivors was impossible.

It was then it became clear that a lot of things we'd been hearing weren't necessarily accurate. There really was visibility, the currents weren't too bad

and the attitude, the list of the submarine on the sea bed wasn't beyond the limits. So we felt that we could probably assist. The press and the families continue to hound Putin. He finally accepts the offers of help from the English and the Norwegians. The following day, the Norwegian and British divers are authorised to dive down to the wreck,

but not to approach the front of the submarine where the explosion had occurred. We took the divers down pretty quick and recognised that... the ship was lying there, there was no current, it was horizontal. There was... the mating ring for the rescue submarine... It had been reported that it was destroyed. It was not destroyed at all.

The Russians had said it was impossible to open the hatches. And yet Norwegian and British divers managed to open the outside one in 25 minutes. Once inside the submarine the camera shows that the vessel is swamped and that there are no survivors. RUSSEL: Sadly, of course, by the time we got to use the LR5 it was all too late.

Admiral Popov decides to make a public address.

He adds, off camera, "I shall spend the rest of my days "searching for whoever is responsible for this tragedy."

The press now suggest that the real reason the catastrophe is being concealed is that possible survivors would have revealed the truth. The Kursk affair has become officially classified as a state secret. Rumours concerning the cause for the accident multiply daily. Everyone has a theory. Some are proposed by the press, others by the navy and various experts.

Two main theories emerge. The first, given by the Russian admirals, incriminates the British or American submarines in the area, involving a collision or the firing of a torpedo. Western diplomats immediately refute the presence of their vessels on the scene. They offer a second explanation - the accidental explosion

of an antiquated hydrogen peroxide-fuelled torpedo, abandoned 50 years ago by other fleets because of its instability. Russian people claim that by accusing the West,

Russian admirals are throwing up a smokescreen by putting the blame on someone else. However, in spite of public opinion,

the Prime Minister prefers to opt for the faulty torpedo theory. 12 days after the catastrophe Putin appoints one of his men, Vladimir Ustinov, the General Prosecutor, to direct the legal inquiry. He immediately declares himself in favour. The faulty torpedo theory becomes the official version before the inquiry has even begun.

It seems difficult to imagine that an antiquated torpedo was to be used in an exercise aimed, in Vladimir Putin's own words, at proving Russia's naval supremacy.

Everyone accepts this explanation. Everyone but the sailors themselves. It is the only explanation which allows Putin to dispel suggestions of foreign responsibility.

At about the same time, a team from the flagship Peter the Great discovers a foreign distress buoy.

The admirals present evidence on videotape of a collision with another submersible. Tears can be easily discerned in the Kursk's hull, as well as a strange hole with the metal turning inwards. Such an amount of damage could hardly have been caused by a mere collision.

The presence of the USS Memphis and the USS Toledo on the scene could explain the two undeniable impacts in the hull.

And if the two American submarines were involved in the Kursk incident, it could only be linked with the presence of the Chinese. By selling them the latest model of the Shkval, the Russians are continuing to conflict with American interests. The Americans are incapable of neutralising it and would lose their naval supremacy in South-East Asia.

Having a weapon like the Shkval puts them in the same sort of league... as Western forces. And that's a worrying development in terms of world balance. The hesitations and deceit of the authorities surrounding the whole affair

indicate that the official explanation for the catastrophe was in fact contrived for diplomatic reasons. The study of the contradictions in the official inquiry, information from intelligence sources and a detailed investigation in Russia, Norway, the UK and the US have helped piece the puzzle together. We can now try and imagine what may really have happened on that fateful day.

That morning, on the 12th of August, the two American submarines in the zone are given a precise mission. The USS Memphis is to observe the Kursk from a distance. The USS Toledo is to openly shadow the Kursk, to signify American disapproval of the demonstration to the Chinese. Shadowing is always a dangerous operation,

especially in these shallow depths where there is a great deal of magnetic interference and manoeuvring is difficult. In its obstruction movements around the Kursk, the Toledo comes perhaps too close, and there is a collision. DRAMATIC MUSIC The incident is recorded by the flagship Peter the Great,

which sounds the alarm, causing the rest of the fleet to close in and fighter planes to take off from their base. Admiral Popov returns to land with the Chinese admirals and has a conference with the Head of Command. The difference in size between the Russian submarine and the Toledo is enormous. It's as if a fishing trawler had rammed the Queen Mary.

The Toledo is badly damaged and limps off. The second American submarine, the Memphis, moves in to cover its escape. As it does, it detects the opening of the bow cap and the typical sound of the loading of a Shkval torpedo. The Shkval is so fast that if it was fired the Memphis would have no time to dive or surface.

So, fearing a retaliation, the commander decides to defend his submarine by firing a Mark-48. The American torpedo cuts cleanly into the torpedo compartment,

exploding its particles inside. The Kursk seems hardly affected and pursues its route. We've seen guns trained at opposing forces.

We've seen the covers taken off missile launchers. But no one has ever gone as far as to pull the trigger. And here, we are seeing the unusual circumstance of, perhaps, someone having pulled the trigger.

Captain Dotsenko, naval historian and university professor, has written a book entitled 'Who Shot the Kursk?' published by the Association of Russian Naval Officers. He quotes the Mark-48 as being the American torpedo which hit the Russian submarine.

The following chain of events is more dramatic than anyone could have imagined. The first explosion creates a flash fire which detonates the torpedoes on board including the highly explosive Shkvals. The second explosion sends the submarine plunging to the seabed. At close range, the Memphis itself is seriously shaken by the shock wave.

The Russians discover oil leaks on the sea surface. They appear to come from the escaping submarine. Navigating slowly, the Memphis is easily tracked down by the Russians. It takes seven days instead of two to reach the Norwegian port of Bergen.

But what has become of the USS Toledo? DRAMATIC MUSIC The Americans have done their best to help the Russians forget about it.

The Memphis had in fact served as a decoy, enabling the Toledo to escape across the Atlantic to the US. Russian secret services later learned that the badly damaged Toledo had been concealed in a closed dock, but the Americans refuse to allow it to be inspected.

It is at this moment that an astonishing article appears on the Pravda website.

Quote... "On Saturday, 12th of August, "an incident occurred in the Barents Sea "which almost led to the start of a Third World War. "For several days, world peace hung on a thread "and a political faux pas "could have led to an exchange of nuclear strikes. "Igor Sergeyev, the Minister of Defence,

"informed the President in Sochi of the event. "It was decided against his immediate return to Moscow, "as his presence in Central Command Headquarters "would have indicated Russia's preparation for a confrontation. "Fortunately, the incident in the Barents Sea "has been resolved diplomatically. "Presidents Clinton and Putin have negotiated

"a peaceful conclusion to the affair."

The theory that there had been American involvement in the tragedy, even if this was motivated by the presence of Chinese officials, would not have been tolerated. It could have triggered hostilities or a return to the Cold War situation.

I don't think that the Kursk should be looked at as anything but part of the tail of the Cold War, in that they were still developing a weapons system that was started in the Cold War

whose principal purpose was to attack American aircraft carriers. All admirals in the Northern Fleet have their own tense memories of the Cold War. The number of submarines at sea resulted in a chain of accidents

between American and Russian vessels, causing the death of hundreds of submariners. These accidents have remained top secret, although many still lie corroding on the sea bed with their nuclear reactors and warheads. Submarines are the only vessels in the world carrying nuclear weapons

for which no international conventions have been signed. Two weeks after the tragedy American intelligence services finally inform 'The New York Times' that an American submarine, the USS Memphis, was observing the Kursk during the exercise. At the same moment, we learn that George Tenet, the head of the CIA, had secretly arrived in Moscow three days after the tragedy.

Presidents Putin and Clinton exchanged telephone calls. A few days later, a Russian debt to the United States is cancelled and the Russians receive a new 10 ? billion dollar loan. The Kursk, in a way, was almost... in the sense that this terrible thing happened, it exposed a huge vulnerability, the government didn't really address the underlying questions as to why this happened. There was no transparency, no openness. It seems like Washington and Moscow have some sort of joint interest in keeping from the rest of us what really happened.

If the Kursk tragedy is really due to an American torpedo, it is easier to understand Vladimir Putin's silence. He needs time to work out an explanation for the tragedy which will satisfy both the Russians and the rest of the world. Vladimir Putin is under severe attack yet, paradoxically, it is now that he shows his quality as a true head of state. Despite the pressure put on him by the public, by military authorities and the press, he demonstrates his capacity to deal with a major conflict. The President finally leaves his summer residence to have a pre-arranged meeting with church representatives. He asks the Orthodox clergy, largely controlled by the KGB, to support the families in their grief. Putin knows the importance of the church for the general public. This support is all the more important as such a human tragedy can no longer be kept secret as in Soviet times. GENTLE PIANO MUSIC For the first time since his election, President Vladimir Putin has gone down by 10% in the polls. He knows that now is the time to take political action. He decides to go to Murmansk, where he's received

by the principal admirals and members of his government,

and where the families are waiting to meet him. His first visit is to the submarine commander's wife. Shots taken by the sole authorised television show the dilapidated dwelling of the commander of the most prestigious submarine in Russia.

That evening, his meeting with the families lasts three hours. Once again, only state television is permitted to film and to broadcast short extracts. Two German journalists who have managed to enter the hall give an alarming account of the meeting to an independent channel. They report that the families listened to President Putin

as he gave his version of the situation before violently attacking him, accusing him of being incapable of governing and demanding the resignation of several admirals.

Vladimir Putin declares a day of national mourning. The families refuse to let him accompany them to the site of the Kursk.

This hostility towards a president has never yet been seen in Russia.

For the first time in history, the families of victims of the nation are given financial compensation. They receive between 25,000 and 35,000 dollars. This is such a huge amount in Russia that some think he's trying to buy them off to prevent a court case. In the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the tragedy and the death of the crew, Putin decides to present the accident as an example of the degeneration of the army and the state. He declares that his intention is to rehabilitate the nation. To do this, he needs the press, the army and politicians on his side. He puts action to words.

When Vladimir Ustinov is asked to conduct the legal inquiry,

the director of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, is appointed to second him. Putin then also asks Ustinov to deal with a pending legal suit against press baron oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky, already in exile,

and Boris Berezovsky, his new target. I got strong pressure from state, from General Prosecutor's office, from FSB people, and in autumn 2000 I had to leave Russia. With the next accident

there will be no journalists to ask the right questions. And people will have to believe

what's in official newspapers and official TV stations. And they will... have to believe in it.

To appease public opinion, Putin announces that the submariners' bodies will be brought to the surface. The Norwegian branch of Halliburton, formerly directed by Dick Cheney, is chosen to carry out the operation. RUSSIAN SONG

Only part of the letter is shown to the press. The other pages are kept secret.

12 bodies are brought up to the surface. The others remain imprisoned in the wreck until it is decided to raise the whole submarine. A ceremony is carried out in the presence of the members of the government and then the bodies are kept for postmortem.

A few days later, a journalist from the newspaper 'Zhizn' quotes one of the forensic experts, Igor Gryaznov. He reveals that a second letter was found in Dimitri Kolesnikov's pocket, dated August 15th, three days after the tragedy. It is addressed to the head authorities and contains information on the accident. He adds that Vice-Admiral Motsak

had explicitly ordered them not to reveal its contents. The letter is never made public. This discovery brought to the foreground once more the idea that the sailors were perhaps left to die.

Ordinary men and women decide to file a court case against the state. In Russia, this again is a precedent. And it may be this that convinces Putin to raise the wreck and the dead submariners.

The government finds a solution to raise the wreck which will both conceal the causes of the tragedy and convince the public of Putin's goodwill. Many Russian and international companies make proposals to bring up the whole wreck, but these are rejected. Finally, the Dutch company Mammoet is chosen for the operation.

It is the only one which refuses to raise the torpedo section. This is sawn off and left on the sea bed,

thus carefully avoiding the discovery of the Kursk's hidden secrets. The operation costs 130 million dollars, double the yearly budget of the Russian navy for the submarine fleet.

double the yearly budget of the Russian navy for the submarine fleet. This time, the whole of the international press is invited when the submarine, minus the front section, is finally raised to the surface. Hotel rooms, creation of websites, conference rooms... nothing is too grand for this impressive ceremony.

During a posthumous ceremony to decorate the victims, Nadezhda Tylik takes the floor. She had already spoken out during the first meeting between the families and the officials, and had been forcibly sedated.

The Dutch barge arrives, towing the Kursk.

Little by little, the tsars' emblem, the double-headed eagle, emerges from the sea. It was ironically chosen for the Kursk to represent the rebirth of Russian supremacy. Vladimir Ustinov - the General Prosecutor -

the investigators and the forensic experts board the submarine.

I am surprised to see an obvious round hole... in the Kursk's hull.

It looks like a torpedo strike. It must be a torpedo strike. Something was happening that we still don't know about. The side of the Kursk with the trace of the torpedo impact is quickly made out of bounds to cameras.

Only six of the 24 missiles seem to have been slightly damaged by the explosion. Their nuclear heads are sent to be dismantled at a secret military base. According to some experts the main reason for the recovery of the wreck was to avoid foreign fleets or terrorists from getting hold of information about the top-secret missiles.

The Russians finally admit that there were indeed nuclear warheads on board. All the bodies from the Kursk have been extricated from the wreck and autopsied. In order to minimise Putin's delay in accepting foreign assistance, Ustinov had officially announced

that the majority of the crew were pulverised by the explosion and therefore could not have been saved. Yet only three out of 118 bodies could not be identified, and these were found in the torpedo compartment itself. The families of the victims will have waited 400 days

to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones. SOLEMN MUSIC

Many feel the price they have paid to preserve a state secret is too high. This time, the press does not dare allude to the different responsibilities for the accident,

whether they be Russian, American or Chinese. Putin's aim for state control of the media has been achieved. The polls are there to prove it. He has gained 20% in popularity since meeting the families and the raising of the bodies. He is furious about the difficult situation his admirals had put him in by openly accusing the Americans in the Kursk affair.

He fires 10 of them, two of whom are key figures... Popov and Motsak. Putin assures that no one is directly responsible and the two admirals are given other comfortable functions. He now addresses the political question. Ilya Klebanov loses his position as Vice-Prime Minister,

as do the Minister of Defence - Igor Sergeyev - and the Home Secretary. All those who had supported the idea of American responsibilities are struck down by Putin's lightning. The US has been completely cleared of any responsibility

and Vladimir Putin can now openly pursue his allegiance

with George W Bush. At the end of 2002 Vladimir Ustinov makes the results of the official inquiry public. His report starts as follows. Quote... "The disaster took place at 11.28 a.m. Moscow time "due to a practice torpedo which set off a chain of explosions

"in the torpedo compartment..." Etcetera, etcetera.

The 2000-page report is full of contradictions and ends with the classic conclusion "Dismissed for lack of evidence." The wreck of the Kursk is transported to a secret military island where it is dismantled and melted down. The Russian fleet blows up the remainder of the wreck - the torpedo section - which had been left on the sea floor.

Any means of knowing the whole truth of the matter is now eradicated once and for all. Two monuments are erected in memory of the 118 deceased submarine crew members. One in Moscow and the other at its naval base in Vidyayevo.

RUSSIAN SONG As for the families of the Kursk disaster, they are still waiting for the results of their vain court case against the state. They were dealing with nuclear submarines, dangerous weaponry, with exactly the kind of situation that could lead to future tragedies. And for that reason alone, we need...

in America, in Russia, globally, we need to know what really went on there. If we can't find that out then we are very far from being able to control the forces of militarism, of bureaucracy, of the strong men who want their kind of democracy that gets their results, whether it be George W Bush in Florida

or Putin in his attempt to create

the trappings of democracy without the substance, in Moscow.

Captions (c) SBS Australia 2005