Argentine sub disaster stirs bitter memories in Russia

Argentina’s frantic search for its San Juan submarine has stirred memories of the disaster that struck Russia’s Kursk in 2000 (AFP Photo/OLGA MALTSEVA)

Moscow (AFP) – President Vladimir Putin has offered his Argentine counterpart Mauricio Macri help in trying to find a submarine that disappeared in the South Atlantic a week ago, and dispatched a Russian military vessel to the scene.

With the hopes of finding the San Juan vessel’s 44 crew members alive dimmed, the search operation has likely stirred memories the Russian strongman would rather forget.

In 2000, just a few months after the former KGB officer assumed his presidential duties for the first time, Russia lost a nuclear submarine with all 118 sailors on board following a bungled rescue effort.

Some of the parallels with the Argentine disaster are eerie: explosions on board the vessel, a race against time to save the crew, and the false hope and fury of relatives.

The loss of the Kursk became the worst disaster in the history of the Russian navy and a huge embarrassment for Putin.

The Kursk, which was Russia’s most modern nuclear submarine, caught fire and exploded in August 2000 due to a torpedo fuel leak while conducting naval exercises in the Barents Sea.

The new Russian president was on vacation at the Black Sea resort of Sochi when the submarine sank. He kept silent for nearly a week, returning to the Kremlin only five days after disaster struck.

It took him another four days to travel to the northern port of Murmansk to oversee the rescue operation.

On top of that, Moscow controversially refused foreign help with the rescue operation at first.

Putin was later criticised for his error of judgement and for misleading the public about the pace of the rescue operation.

– ‘Hatred, despair and pain’ –

Most of the crew died instantly but some survived for several days — with a few keeping heart-breaking diaries to their loved ones — before suffocating.

“My dear Natasha and son Sasha!!! If you have this letter that means I am gone. I love you both very much,” senior warrant officer Andrei Borisov told his wife and child in his last note.

“Natasha, forgive me for everything. Sashulya, be a man. I kiss you.”

On August 22, 2000, the president held a meeting with relatives of the Kursk crew members in the northen port town of Vidyaevo.

Some of the family members yelled at a visibly rattled Putin.

He chalked up the disaster to the state of disrepair of the country’s once mighty military force, blaming his predecessors.

“I had no idea that things were in such a state,” Putin told the angry relatives. “If I could I would go down there myself.”

Kremlin reporter Andrei Kolesnikov, who was at the closed-door meeting, thought the relatives would tear the president apart.

“There was such a heavy atmosphere there, such a clot of hatred, and despair, and pain. I never felt anything like it anywhere in my entire life,” he said in a documentary released in 2015.

When Russian television, which in 2000 was controlled by oligarchs, aired interviews with the wives of the Kursk sailors, an outraged Putin reportedly complained to a prominent journalist that “whores” had been hired to discredit him.

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