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Explained: Western fears about fire accident aboard a Russian submarine

Some security analysts contend that Russia is laying the groundwork for sabotaging undersea communication channels, either to tap them or to cut them, in the event of a military confrontation with the West.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: July 5, 2019 11:57:51 pm
Russian servicemen attend a memorial service for sailors killed in a Russian submarine, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, at the Naval Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kronstadt, Russia July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

The reporting of a fire accident that claimed 14 lives aboard an avant-garde Russian submarine earlier this week added to US fears about Moscow deploying its submersibles to sabotage global undersea communication channels.

According to a statement from the Russian defence ministry, the submarine was measuring sea depth within Russian territorial waters.

The accident

The ministry said that the fire started in the battery compartment of the vessel and then spread, creating poisonous fumes which caused 14 members of the crew to suffocate to death.

Experts cite powerful short circuits and flammable liquids entering an air filter as the principal causes of fire aboard submarines.

While the submarine was nuclear powered, the Russian Minister of Defence on Thursday insisted that the reactor was completely isolated and that there was no looming threat. The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (DSA) in neighbouring Norway corroborated this admission, saying that it had not detected unusually high levels of radiation.

About the submarine

Citing unnamed sources, Russian news outlets RBK and Novaya Gazeta reported that the vessel was the Losharik (AS-12 or AS-31), a highly advanced submarine designed to cut undersea communication cables.

Inducted into the Russian fleet in 2010, the Losharik is capable of withstanding high pressures at great depths, enabling it to survey the ocean floor. Experts believe, that with its interior hull built using titanium spheres, the vessel can dive up to 6000 metres. A regular submarine can go to the depth of 600 metres.

To avoid detection, the Losharik is generally carried under the hull of a larger submarine, and is capable of releasing a smaller submarine itself.

Secrecy surrounding accident

While the accident occurred on Monday, the Kremlin acknowledged the incident only on late Tuesday, a delay which drew criticism as well as raised suspicions about the nature of the vessel’s job.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the submarine was on a special mission, and that among the 14 dead, 7 were first rank captains and 2 were Heroes of Russia, the highest military honour. The total number of crew aboard the vessel was not disclosed.

The delay in making an official statement caused many to draw parallels with the way information was disclosed during the 1986 Chernobyl incident, when very limited data was initially provided to the media.

Western fears

Notwithstanding the Russian ministry explanation that the submarine was a “scientific experimental deep-water apparatus intended to study the natural environment and sea floor,” the US and its allies have believed for some time that the Kremlin has been using its vessels to recce undersea communication cables. In 2018, the commander of United States European Command informed the US Congress that undersea Russian activity was its highest since the 1980’s Cold War period.

The data cables, together believed to be about 10 lakh kilometres in length, carry almost the entire daily traffic of phone calls, SMSs, emails, and digital transactions of the entire world.

Some security analysts contend that Russia is laying the groundwork for sabotaging these communication channels, either to tap them or to cut them, in the event of a military confrontation with the West.

It is also believed that Russia is using the submarines to stake its claim on the Arctic Sea, a region rich in oil and gas reserves.

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