This article appeared as an Op-Ed in the New York Times, August 16, 2000.
The story of the Russian nuclear submarine sunk at the bottom of the Barents Sea with a 116-man crew is terrifying, but it should not be a surprise, especially to the Russian navy. Though the submarine, the Kursk, is one of Russia's newest, and though the details of what went wrong are still sketchy, the only surprise is that this is Russia's first serious submarine accident in more than a decade.
The Russian military, which has been deteriorating for many years, is now running on a mere $5 billion a year, in contrast to the $300 billion the United States spends annually on defense. From this meager allowance, Russia's commanders must pay 1.2 million soldiers and maintain one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world.
The result is a Russian navy that by many accounts cannot properly take care of its ships or submarines. According to reliable reports here, routine maintenance is rare and, when it is done, it is not always handled properly. Submarines often break down and spend most of their time at military bases. Crew members are unable to conduct routine military exercises. The skills and qualifications of the officers have eroded, and young sailors, usually raw recruits, don't gain necessary experience. Officers are paid poorly, less than $100 a month, if they are paid at all. Moonlighting is common, meaning that they probably pay divided attention to their primary duties.
Russian officials said that the Kursk was carrying no nuclear weapons and that its reactors were shut down. Since the Soviet collapse, the Russian navy has taken approximately 180 of its nuclear subs out of service. But it has been unable to dismantle more than 100 of them. Those vessels are kept afloat near their former bases or their dismantlement sites -- two-thirds in the north of Russia, on the Kola Peninsula and the White Sea, and one-third in East Asia, the Sea of Japan and Kamchatka. The subs are largely deserted, some reportedly without security, even though highly radioactive reactor cores remain on board. The magnitude of the problem is considerable. The vast majority of decommissioned submarines have two reactors each. Therefore, one or more of the 200 reactor cores could conceivably sink, sooner or later. Already at least one decommissioned sub has sunk -- fortunately, any reactor cores had been removed. Certainly, the Russian government has mismanaged the stockpiles it inherited from the Soviet Union. But it is more than Moscow's problem. Any accident could result in the contamination of Pacific and Arctic waters with radiation, and ocean currents and migrating fish could spread it. Norway is just 30 miles away from one of Russia's largest sites for decommissioned submarines in the Barents Sea, and Alaska shares the Bering Sea with Kamchatka.
For more than five years, the United States, Japan and Norway have given Russia money to help dismantle nuclear submarines. But dangers still exist, and efforts aimed at preventing further accidents should be accelerated. Russia inherited huge foreign debts from the Soviet Union -- about $80 billion. Moscow cannot pay this debt in full. Would it not be fair to forgive part of the debt under the condition that the saved money be spent on dismantling the remaining nuclear submarines?
This solution would also solve another problem. Europeans, who benefited the most from the end of the cold war, have not financed their fair share of the Russian disarmament. The debt-relief-for-disarmament option would change the situation; the bulk of the Russia debt is owed to European nations. And it is Europe, where the fear of another Chernobyl is the greatest, that has the most interest in seeing the old submarines dismantled.