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Late Reports, An Article Scrubbed: Details Scant Following Deadly Russian Submarine Fire

Russia Mourns Sub Losses Amid Many Questions
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WATCH: Russia Mourns Sub Losses Amid Many Questions

MOSCOW -- At 11 a.m. on July 1, Yevgeny Karpov, a journalist from the Arctic port of Severomorsk, received a call from one of his sources at the city’s naval base – the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

An accident had occurred on one of the vessels, he was told.

“He informed me, on condition of anonymity, that the naval hospital is preparing to receive a large number of casualties,” Karpov told RFE/RL on July 3.

He called the regional branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry and pressed in vain for more information on what had happened, then decided to hold off until morning before publishing a short news item outlining what little he knew: 10 to 14 people presumed dead, more than 10 hospitalized.

“Something happened at night on a submarine in Severomorsk. There are reports about an explosion and a fire,” he wrote.

A photo that is alleged to be of a stealthy, advanced Russian spy submarine known as "Losharik."
A photo that is alleged to be of a stealthy, advanced Russian spy submarine known as "Losharik."

Less than two hours later, Karpov got a call from a man who did not introduce himself. He was asked to delete his article.

He complied, and saved a cached version of the article.

“I understood he was a representative from the Defense Ministry,” Karpov said of the caller. “He politely told me my information was incorrect.”

Sometime after 4 p.m. on July 2, the Defense Ministry released an official statement reporting that a fire had broken out the previous evening aboard a deep-sea, research-and-development submarine, and that 14 sailors had died after inhaling toxic fumes from the conflagration.

It did not reveal the exact type of vessel affected or its crew size, leaving it unclear whether there were any survivors.

A few hours later, President Vladimir Putin sat down in the Kremlin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“This is not an ordinary vessel. It’s a research-and-development vessel,” Putin said. He stated that the dead included seven captains of the first rank and two officers who were recipients of the country’s highest honorary title, Hero of the Russian Federation. Shoigu was dispatched to Severomorsk to "identify the causes of this tragedy."

The delay in reports of the incident, and their threadbare nature, only fueled further questions that official accounts had failed to address: Why did the submarine catch fire? What was its mission? Was it nuclear-powered?

On July 3, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was questioned by journalists eager for details.

But like other officials, Putin’s mouthpiece was tight-lipped. Technical details of the submarine would remain secret due to the sensitive nature of military operations, he said.

“Naturally, such information cannot go into full circulation publicly,” he said. “It relates to a category of totally secret data, so it's normal for us not to reveal it.”

Asked if such information will be released at a later date, Peskov said: “Of course not.” Nor did he disclose whether the submarine carried a nuclear reactor, a source of contention amid concerns of a radioactive fallout from the accident.

“We do not deal with the construction of ships,” Peskov said of Putin’s administration. “That’s [a question] for the Defense Ministry.”

In the absence of official information about the accident, media reports appeared to fill the void. Shortly after the Defense Ministry said that 14 sailors were dead, independent Russian outlet RBK quoted an unnamed source in the military as saying that the submarine was a nuclear-powered AS-12, nicknamed Losharik, a 25-person-capacity vessel in service since the early 2000s and believed capable of exceeding depths of 6,000 meters.

Shoigu shed little light on the matter in his first public comments after arriving in Severomorsk on July 3, saying that an unspecified number of sailors and one civilian had survived. He did not reveal any information about the vessel or the cause of the fire.

State TV on July 3 focused on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s visit to Canada and celebrations in Minsk marking 75 years since Soviet forces drove Nazi occupiers from the Belarusian capital in World War II.

Russia was dealing in parallel with a more broadly destructive, natural catastrophe thousands of kilometers to the east in the Irkutsk region, where floods have killed at least 18 people, displaced thousands, and prompted accusations of inaction by the authorities. Updates on the submarine fire were short and infrequent.

Karpov, who was away from Severomorsk when the incident occurred, suggested that few there will avoid casting their minds back to the summer of 2000, when the nuclear-powered military submarine Kursk sank – also in the Barents Sea – killing all 118 crewmen on board. Putin, in the first year of his presidency and facing one of his first major challenges, was excoriated for his slow response, for his apparent reluctance to face the victims’ relatives, and for obscuring facts about the rescue operation.

Karpov runs a small news blog called Sevoromorsk Life, and describes himself as the only independent journalist in the closed city of 50,000. He was a schoolboy when the Kursk sank and still recalls the aftermath.

“We watched from a window as they dragged parts of the submarine from underneath the ocean. We saw the Kamaz trucks traversing the town carrying bodies of the dead,” he said. “Everyone understood what had happened. The atmosphere in the town was heavy and tense.”

When Putin traveled to Severomorsk and a nearby naval garrison 10 days after the Kursk sank, he caught the wrath of distraught, angry relatives. One widow told him he was “not a president,” and another said he had “nothing to say to us.”

Speaking to the news outlet Meduza on July 2, Karpov said that relatives of the crew members of the submarine struck by fire would have to sign pledges not to speak publicly to the media.

By late on July 3, there were few public statements or appearances by the victims’ loved ones, if any.

For his part, Karpov said he does not believe the Defense Ministry’s hours-long delay in releasing any information about the incident suggests a cover-up or an attempt to downplay its scale.

“I think it’s connected to the fact that there was little clarity,” he said. “It happened in the evening, so time was needed to concretely ascertain what had happened.”

But he said the state’s handling of the sinking of the Kursk led to suspicions and conspiracy theories that persist to this day.

“With the Kursk, I still have my doubts. I’m not confident that we yet have completely reliable information about what happened.”

In Severomorsk, he said, “people will certainly recall the Kursk. It seriously convulsed the city.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.