Skip to main content
A Russian Northern Fleet submarine base in Gadzhiyevo.
stories

A high-ranking crew in a shallow sea We asked Russian military experts to explain the Barents Sea submarine fire

Источник: Meduza
A Russian Northern Fleet submarine base in Gadzhiyevo.
A Russian Northern Fleet submarine base in Gadzhiyevo.
Lev Fedoseyev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On the evening of July 1, a fire broke out on a deep-sea vessel operating near the Russian naval base at Severomorsk. Fourteen submarine sailors were killed by the resulting fumes. News of the fire became public only a full day later, and Russia’s Defense Ministry let another day pass before identifying those killed. Little else is known about the incident and the vessel where it took place: some media sources said it was a submarine, while many others cited sources who said it was the atomic deep-sea station Losharik. Meduza asked three military experts to give their estimations of what the vessel may have been doing in the Barents Sea, what might have caused the fire, and how seven first-rank captains ended up on the same craft.

Note: Due to rapidly developing news coverage on this issue, the experts gave their opinions before the victims of the fire had been identified.

Mikhail Khodarenok

Former employee of the Russian military’s General Headquarters, now a military columnist for Gazeta.ru

It was a tragedy. Seven first-rank captains, three second-rank captains, and a captain-lieutenant died. Four people survived, possibly including civilians. Of course, some might think to ask how civilians could turn up on a craft like this one, but there is actually nothing unusual there. The capacity of the vessel was a crew of 14 and a research group of up to five people. It is entirely possible that the research group included civilians. They also received burns during the fire.

More generally, a fire on a vessel that is underwater is the most frightening thing you can imagine. My sources in the Defense Ministry say the fire was sparked by a short circuit. Then, the hydrogen vapors coming from the batteries caught fire, and disaster followed. The reactors on submarines and other deep-sea vessels aren’t typically very well-protected. Technology is technology: chance lurks around every corner, and it’s impossible to foresee every possible event.

Military sources say that the vessel was not atomic. That seems to be true because its velocity is very small: six knots (almost 7 miles per hour) for only three days of independent movement. The craft contained multibeam echolocation and profilograph equipment. Those tools are necessary for studying the ocean floor and analyzing sediment composition. It seems that the crew could not have been working on anything else. The military sources I’ve been able to contact say it’s a research vessel, that it was not responsible for any combat missions. The ocean floor is poorly studied, so the activities of this vessel were very important for the vital functions of the navy. That’s why the Northern Fleet owns these kinds of vessels.

Why there was such a high-ranking crew isn’t known. We’re getting into state secrets there. But it also doesn’t seem to me that the team was all that high-ranking. In some military structures, the most junior rank is colonel.

The Defense Ministry has not yet provided a list of those killed. There have been unconfirmed reports that 13 members of the crew will receive the Order of Courage and one who played a particularly major role in saving the vessel will receive the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.

Pavel Felgengauer

Military columnist for Novaya Gazeta

The Barents Sea is very small. There wouldn’t be any real work to do there for the Losharik. It descended at a place where the depth of the sea floor is 200 – 300 meters (656 – 984 feet), but it’s designed for depths of multiple kilometers. That means there was some kind of systems check once they [the crew] left Severomorsk, where there are a lot of submarine repair facilities. It could have been a test, some kind of preliminary work, checkups for new equipment. When that kind of work goes on, you get a lot of people who aren’t members of the regular crew. There’s no other mission for that vessel to take on in the Barents Sea.

Submarine fires actually occur fairly frequently. There are even special, very costly land-based simulators that teach people how to fight a fire on a submarine. So it’s a known danger. You’ve got seawater that conducts electricity and a lot of cables, so things do short-circuit. If any salt water gets in anywhere, everything shorts like hell. But, of course, I don’t know exactly what happened here. Some kind of commission will probably investigate what happened.

Alexander Golts

Military columnist

We’re talking about a top-secret military division whose responsibilities are outside the broader considerations of the Russian army. We know this because first-rank captain is a senior officer’s position. Usually, people with that rank command either a nuclear submarine or a large atomic cruiser or something of that sort. All of this points to the fact that this military division was exceptional.

Because they [the crew] were working within Russian territorial waters, [we can guess] that they were testing something or doing a standards check. There’s a giant number of variables. They were definitely not doing combat work directed against anybody because there’s nobody to combat within the territorial waters of the Russian Federation. The fact that [there were so many high-ranking officers there] indicates that the operations they were conducting are only accessible to those who have a huge amount of experience serving underwater.

It sounds nice to call this scientific research, but in fact, these deep-sea dives aren’t pure science. It [could be] a chance to collect information: roughly speaking, they [military servicemembers] collect everything that lands on the bottom of the sea. That primarily means debris from weapons testing, which is something every agency in the world searches for. It’s also known that countries whose militaries are opposed with one another install censors, all possible monitors, on the ocean floor to track the submarine routes of their potential opponents. There are connective cables deep on the ocean floor. If you can connect to them, you can discover quite a lot. In times of conflict, destroying those cables can destroy a potential opponent’s ability to communicate.

They’ll probably tell us the names and nothing else. It’s clear that the senior officers thought for a time about how to communicate this to the commanders of the Northern Fleet and then to Moscow. Then, the Moscow commanders thought for a while about how to communicate it [to the public]. This story is unpleasant in itself even if no one is at fault. And if we keep our communications bureaucracy in mind, we know they aren’t able to react quickly.

Recorded by Kristina Safonova and Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Hilah Kohen