European Stars and Stripes
September 7, 2000
Pg. 3

Russia Stays Close To NATO Sub Exercise

By Ward Sanderson, Stars and Stripes

The largest submarine rescue exercise in NATO history is under way in Mediterranean waters off Mersin, Turkey — and though Russia is not participating, the alliance’s former enemy is keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.

Happening just three weeks after the Kursk disaster, the rescue drills are drawing considerable Russian attention, from both nautical brass and the press.

"It’s not surprising that our Russian colleagues are interested, because of the tragedy of the Kursk," a NATO official said from Brussels, Belgium.

However, Russia is not on board as an observer as was discussed last week, exercise spokesman Lt. Cmdr. H.W. Lange said from Mersin.

Nonetheless, Russian journalists have kept NATO busy with waves of questions, attributable to that country’s recent accident that killed 118 submariners in the Barents Sea. Specifically, they wanted to know whether NATO had planned the mock rescues prior to the sinking of the Kursk. The exercise actually had been planned for two years.

Despite Russia’s absence now, it isn’t impossible for its navy to participate in future submarine rescue operations, the NATO official said. He said he was unsure whether Russia had made a formal request to be an observer, but denied the country was barred.

"There were no politics involved," he said.

It also would be extremely difficult to integrate Russia into an operation of this size with such little notice.

"An exercise of this size is planned long before [it happens]," he said. "That one we planned a long time before, and it always was a NATO-only exercise."

Sorbet Royal usually happens every three years, the last time being 1996 off Norway. Earthquakes severely damaged Turkey’s largest naval base in Golcuk last year, delaying the drills until now. They will continue through Sept. 13. The United States, Italy and Turkey are the primary players. The rescue situations they are practicing include searching for a sub in distress, planning escapes from damaged subs and treating injured submariners aboard ship and ashore.

Some of the advanced gear they bring include deep-sea rescue vehicles from the United States and Italy and an Italian atmospheric dive suit. The U.S. craft can dive more than 10 times deeper than that of the sunken Kursk. The USS Dallas, a U.S. nuclear sub, is drilling alongside four subs from Turkey and Italy. Seven surface ships also are afloat nearby.

Israel, Argentina, Chile, Singapore and Sweden are listed as observers. Sweden is a NATO member but is not contributing equipment. India also had talked about taking an observer’s chair, but did not in the end. Despite Russia’s absence, the NATO official said relations between the alliance and its former rival are improving. Diplomacy turned chilly during the alliance’s airstrikes over Kosovo.

Lord George Robertson, secretary-general of NATO, said in a speech Wednesday that a thaw is beginning, and that the unfortunate Kursk incident might actually serve to bring the old blocs closer. "Instead of rekindling old NATO-Russia suspicions, the tragic story of the submarine Kursk actually showed the positive development in NATO-Russia relations over the past several months," Robertson said.

"Immediately after hearing of the incident, I offered NATO assistance, and several Allies also made direct, bilateral offers of help. Russia took up the Norwegian and British offers, and made use of facilities at NATO for consultations with other allies, as well."