The Kremlin has said it is not planning to identify the submarine involved in Monday’s fire that cost the lives of at least 14 servicemen – or release any details about its mission.
“Some information relates to the category of state secret,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. “It is normal practice that that such information is not released.”
Russian media have so far provided an incomplete and sometimes contradictory picture of the circumstances surrounding the fire.
Several sources have identified the vessel as the A-31 (also known as the Losharik) submersible, a nuclear-powered unarmed vessel capable of deep sea missions. The exact design of the submersible is shrouded in secrecy, but it is believed to be an experimental 70m-long craft operating in conjunction with a larger mothership submarine. Developed over 15 years beginning in 1988, it is described as the Russian military’s most advanced deep water vessel.
According to some descriptions, the submersible is associated with maritime special forces missions, including spying on ocean-bed cables. It is capable of diving to depths of up to 6000m.
Severpost, a local news agency, reported that the smaller submarine was likely tethered to the larger Podmoskovye atomic submarine when it emerged from the Barents Sea at the mouth of the Kola Bay. Citing an unnamed fisherman, the publication claims that the submarine was travelling quickly back towards base, but without obvious signs of distress.
“We decided that there was no accident since the submarine was travelling on its own and so quickly,” the fisherman is quoted as saying. “There was no smoke, nothing. But then people told us that they’d seen bodies being unloaded [onto another boat].”
Moscow has declined to give details about the cause of the fire, only to say that it was extinguished by the “heroic” actions of the crew. According to Reuters, Moscow told Norwegian authorities that there had been a “gas explosion” on board. This was immediately refuted by the Russian defence ministry.
On Wednesday, Russian Forbes put forward another explanation. Citing sources in the shipbuilding industry, it said the fire may have been on a small capsule that was lowered from the vessel, with problems beginning when the capsule was raised from the depths. A faulty battery system may have been to blame, it added.
What isn’t clear is how many of the servicemen survived the initial incident, and how many died on the way to hospital. Reports that five crew members were receiving treatment in a military hospital in Severomorsk were later confirmed by defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin met with Mr Shoigu for an emergency briefing. In the public part of that meeting, the Russian president confirmed seven first-rank captains were among the dead, including two who had received Russia’s highest “Hero of Russia” decoration.
Russian media have reported that the crew on board the submersible were all officers, with the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper describing them as “the elite of the Russian navy”.
Late on Wednesday, some 48 hours after the incident, the Russian ministry of defence named the 14 dead. They were Heroes of Russia Denis Dolonsky and Nikolai Filin; first-rank captains Vladimir Abankin, Denis Oparin, Andrei Voskresensky, Konstantin Somov and Konstantin Ivanov; second-rank captains Alexander Avdonin, Alexander Vasilyev, Sergei Danilchenko and Dmitry Solovyev; third-rank captains Viktor Kuzmin and Vladimir Sukhinichev; and captain lieutenant Mikhail Dubkov.
Denis Oparin, 40, is apparently the son of Alexander Oparin, a high ranking officer in the Russian navy and the commander of unit 45707, to which the submersible was reportedly attached.
Based in Peterhof, near St Petersburg, unit 45707 is one of the most secretive military divisions in the whole of Russia. As part of the defence ministry’s chief directorate of deep-sea research, it is understood to specialise in maritime reconnaissance.
Such disclosures are likely to increase speculation as to the vessel’s exact mission.
The secrecy surrounding the submersible’s mission creates obvious parallels with the 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine. Then, the Russian navy was criticised for allowing state secrets to get in the way of the rescue operation – and President Putin, still early in his presidency, for a tone-deaf response.
Official accounts that all 118 victims died almost immediately following two explosions on board were undermined by a later investigation that revealed that at least 23 submariners remained alive – at least for some time.
In his press call with journalists, Mr Peskov insisted the Kremlin’s position was “consistent with Russian law on state secrets”.
“There should be no doubts that the head of navy has all the necessary information,” he said.
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