On the morning of September 7, the St. Daniil Moskovsky, a Russian Victor III-class submarine that was commissioned in 1990 and went to sea in 1991, caught fire in the Barents Sea. The fire was caused by a short circuit in the electrical control panel. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, two crewmembers died, apparently because they did not put on their oxygen masks in time. Fortunately an automatic safety system shut down the submarine’s two nuclear reactors when the fire began. Thus there was no radiation danger. Once the fire was out, the submarine was towed to its home base at Vidayevo on the Kola Peninsula (RIA-Novosti, Itar-Tass, Associated Press, September 7).
This is the third disaster to befall the Northern Fleet since 2000. In 2000 the Kursk submarine exploded and sank in the Barents Sea, killing 118 men, and in 2003 nine members of a ten-man crew died when their submarine sank in gale force winds in the Barents Sea even as it was being towed to a scrap yard. But it is by no means the only such loss to occur to the navy. In 2005 a bathyscaph-like vessel went down in the Pacific Ocean and had to be rescued by a British submersible ship.
While this latest tragedy could have happened anywhere, and in and of itself signifies nothing about the Russian Navy, the subsequent reports about this fire testify to disturbing facts concerning the navy’s ability to maintain its ships and men. For example, every sailor is supposed to have a portable breathing apparatus hanging on his belt so that in a situation like this he could readily use the system and breathe the oxygen it produced. In addition, in the section of the submarine where the fire occurred there are breathing apparatuses connected by hoses that all members are supposed to know how to use. And on top of that, there are isolating gas masks. Even so, according to Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, the two men who died evidently did not have time to use any of these means to keep themselves alive. Masorin added that the section in which the fire occurred is packed with equipment, and the materials used to insulate the equipment will emit carbon monoxide when burning. Masorin then went on to say that one sailor who was able to breathe using his portable apparatus was able to drag the two sailors out, but they died before a helicopter could take them to the hospital. But since the system only works for ten minutes, he had to remove the device and breathe foul air before he himself was rescued and taken to a hospital (NTV Mir, September 7).
Although this is entirely possible, the explanation still leaves the impression that either there were defects in these sailors’ equipment or in their training.
Masorin also admitted that the submarine had missed its repair deadline, but nevertheless its service life had been extended because it was in good condition and all necessary repair work had been carried out, including the installation of a new accumulator (RIA-Novosti, Russia and CIS military newswire, September 7). However, this explanation simply does not add up. If all repair work was performed, then why wasn’t its maintenance and repairs attendant to those checks carried out? While emergencies do occur all the time, the St. Daniil Moskovsky incident seems to be another example of the abysmal lack of a culture of maintenance that pervades Russian civil and military installations, and the navy in particular. Nor did Masorin explain why the ship was on maneuvers if it had missed its regularly scheduled maintenance. Indeed, absent such maintenance, how could anyone know for sure that the ship was in good condition?
Finally it appears that other personnel in the fleet have similar unanswered questions. Soon after the reports of the fire became public, it was revealed that investigators from the Northern Fleet had begun a criminal investigation, looking into possible violations of navigation rules (RIA-Novosti, Russia and CIS military newswire, September 7). While it is a long-standing Russian tradition to jump to the conclusion that somebody is criminally responsible for what was probably a typical failure to do or complete the necessary regular maintenance, a fatal accident at sea, even if it is due to neglect, requires such an investigation. However, criminalizing the “guilty parties,” whomever they may be or whatever they may have done or failed to do, is not enough. What is clear is that despite talk of reforms, quality control, routine maintenance, and training are still suspect, if not substandard in the navy, and quite possibly in the military as a whole. As several Russian and foreign analysts have frequently observed, Russia pays a considerable sum of money to build, equip, and train its armed forces; but it still gets a miserable return on its investment and is still failing to overcome the pathologies that seem to be built into the navy and the armed forces as a whole.