Will We Ever Know What Sank the Kursk?

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Russian Navy cadet lays a wreath on the first anniversary of the Kursk disaster

Moscow is upbeat: The operation to raise the Kursk proceeds according to plan. But a crucial stage in the salvage operation, cutting off the sunken submarine's bow torpedo bay, has been delayed at least a week, raising new questions about just how serious the Russian government is about ever finding out just what went wrong. The delay has been explained as a failure of the Dutch-made underwater saw-chain and as the fault of rumored poor training of the Russian contingent of the diving team. Unconfirmed information that the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office (CMPO) allegedly intervened to prevent sawing off the bow, only heightens suspicions that the boat will never be raised — or was ever meant to be raised at all.

Last May, Deputy Russian Premier Ilya Klebanov said on the record that the Kursk blew up on its own torpedo. However, Moscow is still reluctant to name the cause of the explosion, but keeps hinting darkly at a possible collision with a NATO sub.

Meanwhile, some independent Russian and foreign experts believe that the explosion resulted from a malfunction in a practice torpedo's engine, propelled with concentrated hydrogen peroxide fuel, or HTP. Accidentally leaked HTP could have come in contact with silver or other metals present in the alloys used in submarine-building, they say, potentially resulting in a powerful explosion. This blast could then have detonated all or some of the Kursk's other torpedoes, causing the second powerful explosion that actually sank the state-of-the art nuclear cruiser a year ago.

Still, the Russian political and military brass would much rather let the Barents sea keep the evidence of their own fault than ever admit it, believes Vice-Admiral (R) Yevgeni Chernov. A sailor with 33 years experience in the silent service and once a fabled commander of the Northern Fleet nuclear submarines, Chernov contends that the raising operation was intentionally launched as a cover-up to leave the Kursk on the sea floor.

"There never was any real design, or intention to accomplish this mission," Chernov told TIME. It was Chernov who publicly insisted that the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office (CMPO) should forbid severing the bow from the dead submarine, as the cut would go through the hole in the hull caused by explosion, destroying forensic evidence that may point to the cause of the deadly accident. So far, the CMPO had kept mum. However, Novye Izvestiya, a well-informed Moscow- based daily, reported Thursday that the CMPO did indeed rule out cutting off the nose section. The CMPO would not confirm nor deny the allegation to the paper. Ironically, should the allegation prove true, it would help those avoiding the truth rather than people who, like Chernov, want to find out what really happened to the Kursk, because the CMPO's ban could become an excuse to discontinue the salvage operation.

But there have been plenty of curious delays. When the operation started last month, the brass issued assurances that everything was going well, and than denied or confused their own statements. First, they said they were sure there were no unexploded torpedoes left in the Kursk, and thus nothing could endanger the divers. Then, they said there were unexploded torpedoes there. Then, they said they had meant there could be some torpedoes outside the boat, but no explosives were left inside. Then, they insisted there were no torpedoes outside. Finally, early this month, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, Russian Navy's Commander-in-Chief, confirmed that there still might be unexploded torpedoes inside the boat, but he was "100 percent sure" there were no unexploded torpedoes outside.

Commodore Igor Dygalo, Kuroyedov's spokesman, said this week that he hoped that "the process of the cutting off the bow section will commence as scheduled" —on August 20. Whether that will happen is still very much in the air.