Rescued Russian sub is cause of celebration, consternation

August 08, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Pale but smiling, the seven Russians rescued from a stricken mini-submarine marched down the gangplank of a navy ship yesterday to the green shores of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where their countrymen greeted them with a mixture of joy, annoyance and embarrassment.

"It was cold, cold, very cold. I can't even describe it," one crew member with reddish hair said as the sailors walked ashore with dazed looks and bloodshot eyes after their vessel was cut loose from cables that had snagged it.

Lt. Vyacheslav Milashevsky, commander of the Priz, told television reporters gathered on the dock that he felt fine and never doubted the sub would be rescued. His wife, Yelena, told Channel One that she was elated when she saw her husband on TV: "My feelings danced. I was happy. I cried."

Top Russia government officials sounded enthusiastic, at least in public. "Today was a very happy event," said Adm. Viktor D. Fyodorov, commander of Russia's Pacific Fleet. The crew "behaved valiantly. ... It is worth living for these moments."

Television pictures showed Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov sitting on the ship's bridge, clenching both fists and exclaiming, "Great!" when the Priz broke the surface.

He said he was grateful for the efforts of his Pacific fleet and to "everybody who extended a helping hand to us - primarily, of course, the British navy, the naval forces of the United States of America and the naval forces of Japan."

But other political and military figures lamented that the crisis exposed the weakness and disorganization of Russia's military 14 years after the Soviet collapse. Worse, perhaps, it forced the Kremlin to seek help from Western governments at a time when Russia's leaders have accused those governments of seeking to undermine Russia's influence in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Several opposition political figures expressed outrage that Russia was forced to turn to the West for help. "It is completely incomprehensible why the British have the necessary technology, but we don't," said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The cause of all this celebration and consternation was a mini-submarine, the red-and-white-striped, 45-foot Priz, equipped with lights, cameras and robot arms for undersea rescue-and-recovery missions.

The Priz sank during military exercises last week after it became entangled in a stray fishing net, authorities said, and then ensnared in cables used as antennas in a secret long-range submarine detection system.

The crippled vessel was trapped in the deep, dark, frigid waters of the North Pacific for 76 hours. The six crew members and one passenger, a representative of the sub's builders, huddled in the cold steel hull, swaddled in survival suits, and waited for rescue as their air ran out.

Desperate, the Russian navy tried to lasso and raise the Priz, using cables dragged by surface ships above the seafloor. Meanwhile, at the Russian navy's request, the United States, Japan and Britain dispatched rescue teams armed with high-tech salvage equipment.

Finally, a British navy rescue team, using a submersible robot, cut away the cables and debris holding the Priz about 625 feet below the surface late yesterday afternoon local time.

Murky TV pictures showed cables wrapped tightly around the sub's midsection and a shroud of netting near its hull.

The British commander, Jonty Powis, told reporters that the submarine crew members had about 12 hours of oxygen left when they finally reached the surface at 4:26 p.m. and - unassisted - popped open the hatch.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin did not comment publicly on the rescue yesterday. But several political and military figures said yesterday that the incident showed that Russia has failed to modernize its military, despite billions in oil revenues pouring into the treasury in recent years.

They compared the plight of the Priz to the sinking five years ago of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 sailors aboard. "In both cases," the Web site Mosnews.com said yesterday, "the Navy simply proved ill-prepared to carry out the rescue operation, because of faulty equipment and a lack of specialists."

Adm. Eduard Baltin, a former commander of Russia's Black Sea fleet, criticized Russian naval officers for asking the United States and Britain - both members of NATO - for aid because it compromised national security.

The operation, he said, permitted Russia's Cold War adversaries a close-up look at a strategic surveillance system used to detect enemy subs. And it allowed NATO nations to work near Russia's main nuclear submarine base in the Pacific. The Kamchatka region, he told Interfax, "is stuffed with secrets."

Retired Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, now a member of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said he was grateful to Britain for helping Russia avoid a repeat - albeit on a smaller scale - of the Kursk tragedy.

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