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DATE=8/16/2000 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=RUSSIAN SUB / MILITARY NUMBER=5-468861 BYLINE=LAURIE KASSMAN DATELINE=MOSCOW CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: One of Russia's largest and newest nuclear submarines is lying on the bottom of the Barents Sea with more than 100 sailors trapped on board. Rescue operations are underway, but information is scarce and contradictory about what happened and why. V-O-A Correspondent Laurie Kassman in Moscow reports the sinking is a blow to the prestige of Russia's military establishment. TEXT: The Kursk nuclear submarine is the pride of Russia's dwindling nuclear fleet. Only five-years in service, the 155-meter boat is known as a killer, built to attack and destroy NATO aircraft carriers. It was also considered invincible - until last weekend when disaster struck during naval exercises in the Arctic waters off Russia's northern coast. Now, the Kursk lies crippled on the floor of the Barents Sea, about 100-meters below surface. More than 100-sailors and naval officers are trapped on board. No one knows how many are still alive, but officials say the oxygen supply will be exhausted by Friday. Military analyst Aleksander Goltz says the accident has stunned the military establishment. /// GOLTZ ACT ONE /// The blow is more serious because there were long talks about the bad state of the old Russian submarines that were built in Soviet times. But the problem is that the Kursk is the newest one. /// END ACT /// The Kursk disaster focuses attention once again on the poor record of Russia's elite nuclear fleet. In 1989, more than 40-sailors died when a nuclear attack submarine sank off the northern coast of Norway after a fire on board. Ten-people were killed in 1985 when an explosion destroyed a ship repair facility. Another nuclear submarine was scuttled after catching fire off Russia's northern coast. Government investment in the nuclear fleet has sharply diminished during the past decade as defense budgets have been slashed. Most of Russia's warships are decaying in port. Statistics show the size of the nuclear submarine fleet is one-third of what it was a decade ago. The U-S, Japanese, and Norwegian governments are providing money to dismantle the unfit nuclear submarines and prevent leakage of radioactive materials. Defense experts also raise questions about the maintenance of ships still in service. It is still not entirely clear what happened to the Kursk. At first, officials said it had collided with another ship. On Tuesday, they said an explosion on board had caused the submarine to sink to the bottom of the sea. Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says an explosion on board means human error on the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. /// FELGENHAUER ACT ONE /// Right now it is all guesswork. But mechanical failure that kills an unsinkable ship and an explosion on board most likely has a human component to it. /// END ACT /// Analyst Goltz says the official wall of silence is also aimed at crushing criticism. /// GOLTZ ACT TWO /// If you do not speak about this, it looks like nothing happened. /// END ACT /// Russian officials now are talking with NATO about offers of help, but raise questions about the compatibility of NATO and Russian systems. Pavel Felgenhauer says it is also a question of pride and secrecy surrounding the submarine's capabilities. /// FELGENHAUER ACT TWO /// They believed it to be practically unsinkable so Russia wants to keep NATO as far away from the ship as possible, so they do not learn how to sink such ships. /// END ACT /// Less than one-month ago, President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russia's navy as the symbol of a strong Russian state and a pillar of its defense capabilities. The untimely Kursk disaster has seriously tarnished that image. (SIGNED) NEB/LMK/JWH/RAE 16-Aug-2000 10:23 AM EDT (16-Aug-2000 1423 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .