The Russian government has been accused of a Chernobyl-style cover-up after refusing to disclose details about the submarine fire which killed 14 sailors Monday.
The blaze is thought to have broken out on the highly-secretive AS-12 submarine – nicknamed Losharik – which is powered by a nuclear reactor.
But the Kremlin has refused to name the vessel or disclose the cause of the fire, leading to comparisons with the 1986 nuclear disaster and Moscow’s attempts to hide the full extent of it.
The Russian defence ministry has said only that the fire occurred on board a research vessel surveying the sea bed, and that it was fully extinguished.
The Russian government has been accused of a cover-up after refusing to disclose details of a fire on board a submarine, identified in news reports as an AS-12 Losharik (file image), and whether the vessel had a nuclear reactor on board
The AS-12 is powered by a nuclear reactor, but the Kremlin as declined to name the vessel involved or say how the fire started. Pictured is a submarine at the Severomorsk port on Tuesday, where the stricken craft was taken, but it is not clear if this is the one that caught fire
The AS-12 Losharik is officially designated as a deep-sea research craft, but the Pentagon believes this is a cover for its true purpose as a sabotage vessel designed to attack underwater cable networks.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal spokesman, said Wednesday that information about the fire will never become public because it contains ‘classified information.’
The incident took place on Monday, according to the Defence Ministry, but was not officially disclosed until late on Tuesday.
Local news site SeverLife.ru initially reported the accident, but claimed that they were contacted by the Russian navy and told to remove it.
Five hours later, the Defence Ministry issued a statement confirming the fire.
Absolutely nothing is known at the moment – who, what… I don’t understand one thing: why did a day go by and only then did they make the statement about the deceased?’ said Yevgeny Buntman, an anchor for the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
‘Why don’t we know their names? Is this normal?’
The Bell, a news site often critical of the government, wrote: ‘Nearly a day without information about the accident in a nuclear facility and the need to look out for Norwegian statements about the level of radiation should have given a shudder to those who remember the Chernobyl nuclear power station.’
Norway’s authorities said on Tuesday they had not detected any abnormal radiation.
Asked on Wednesday if the vessel had a nuclear reactor on board, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred the question to the defence ministry.
Accusations of a cover-up began to boil as identities of some of those killed emerged, along with claims they perished after locking themselves in with the fire in order to stop the vessel being destroyed.
Information about the victims seems to hint at the submarine’s importance to the Kremlin, as seven of the fourteen who died were first rank sea captains, at least two of whom had been awarded the Hero of Russia – the country’s top honour.
Fourteen Russian submariners attached to a secretive military unit died when their vessel caught fire. Seven of them were first rank sea captains, hinting at the craft’s importance. The dead include Andrey Voskresensky (left) and Nikolay Filin (right)
Denis Dolonsky (circled), another first rank sea captain, was also named among the dead as experts say the sailors likely locked themselves in with the fire to stop the sub being destroyed
All of the officers who died were attached to ‘top secret’ military unit number 45707, based in Peterhof, reported the Kommersant newspaper.
First rank captain Denis Dolonsky died in the fire, according to Baza news outlet, citing military sources.
He is listed as being from a military unit based in Peterhof, and was the commander of the AS-12 Losharik submarine
He was awarded Hero of Russia around six years ago for ‘Arctic and Antarctic research works’.
Another victim was reported to be Andrey Voskresensky, who was the son-in-law of Russian rear admiral Vladimir Bederdinov.
Bederdinov had been head of the Russian Navy Training Centre in Sosnovy Bor for 13 years.
A third first rank captain who died on the mission was named as Nikolay Filin.
He has been listed since 1987 in the same military unit in Peterhof and was a tester of deep sea military equipment.
He was awarded Hero of Russia in 2018.
Another victim of the fire was named as Denis Oparin, 40.
No picture was immediately available but his father Alexander Oparin is believed to be commander of military unit 45707.
Oparin senior was involved in the rescue operation when the Kursk submarine was lost in the Barents Sea in 2000 in a suspected underwater explosion.
A woman whose husband and son had previously served on the AS-12 Losharik claimed to be aware of some of the circumstances of the fatal accident, and claimed to know one of those who died.
‘He had a wife and a child,’ she told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper anonymously. We are in close touch with families of other submariners.
‘They truly are heroes. They did not allow the fire to spread to a different place (on the submarine). They saved the other men which cost them their lives.
‘They did not open their compartment where the fire began, and burned there. On the contrary, they closed it.
‘They were fighting for their lives there and could not overcome the fire.’
Up to five survivors were rescued from the stricken vessel and taken to hospital in military hospital in closed Arctic Northern Fleet naval base Severomorsk.
‘All of them were diagnosed with smoke poisoning and concussion,’ reporter Baza.
Nikolay Filin had received the Hero of Russia, the country’s top military award, six years ago (pictured). Dolonsky was also a recipient of the award
The bodies of the dead have been brought to the same hospital, it was reported.
Forensic experts are now working in the hospital, establishing the reason for death of those killed submarines.
Moscow has remained tight-lipped about the cause of the fire, but has denied reports of a gas explosion on board.
Meanwhile it emerged that the Russian navy had sought to block details of the submarine horror from being made public.
Local news site SeverLife.ru reported the accident based on lanky sources some five hours before the statement from the defence ministry in Moscow.
They were immediately ordered to remove the report.
The initial report admitted there were different versions of what had happened.
‘At night something happened on a submarine in Severomorsk,’ it read. ‘There is information about an explosion and fire.
‘Several people are reported to be killed. The crew managed to put out the fire without external help.
‘As SeverLife got to know from its anonymous source in one of the departments of Northern Navy, the victims were taken to hospital.
‘There were more than ten people there.
‘Another source said that from 10 to 14 people have been killed and five more were injured. Two of them are in intensive care.
‘One more source confirmed that the hospital was expecting a large number of victims….
‘Another source at the Northern Navy said – that was army exercises.’
Separate reports suggest a short circuit may have been responsible for the inferno.
Elsewhere, friends of the dead posted tributes on Russian social media.
Russian officials worked hard to cover up the true extent of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster after No. 4 reactor exploded in 1986 (file image)
One read: ‘In memory of our friend, commander of the submarine, first rank captain Hero of Russia Denis Dolonsky.
‘We love you, the most faithful, brave and heroic friend, loving and loved one… reliable, kind, true, tender and strong… our friend Denis has died.’
Nikolay Radaev posted on VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, saying: ‘Our close friend and Hero of Russia Denis Dolonsky died today… a true man, loving and tender husband, father and son, a Man with a capital letter M.
‘Fourteen people were killed … in the Berents Sea… we remember, we love.’
One version of events that emerged Wednesday was that the submariners sacrificed their lives to save the submarine, according to Russia’s largest newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
‘Experts suppose that the crew locked the module of the submarine where the fire broke out in order to stop the flames and smoke from capturing the whole vessel,’ it reported.
The 14 who perished were ‘poisoned with smoke’.
The Losharik can fit a maximum of 25 sailors.
It is capable of diving as deep as 6,000m (19,700ft) compared with around 600m (1,970 ft) for more conventional submarines.
One Russian expert, speaking anonymously, said: ‘It is too early to say anything certain about this tragedy.
‘In my opinion, the number of victims tells me that the fire was localised by sealing the capsule where the blaze started in order to save the whole sub’.
This would ‘stop flames and smoke from going further’.
He said: ‘The second option is that the fire spread around like a storm and the crew simply did not have time to do anything, but it is less likely.’
The cause of the fire is as yet unknown.
The Russian defence ministry denied reports from Norway that the Russians had admitted a gas explosion.
The ministry said: ‘Thanks to self-sacrificing actions of the crew, the fire at the submersible vehicle was put out.
‘No notifications regarding the Russian deep-sea research submersible have ever been sent to the Norwegian side.’
Putin has described the fire as ‘a big loss for the fleet’ and sent defence minister Sergei Shoigu (right) to the scene, telling him to report back directly on the progress of the investigation
The statement came as a response to a Reuters report, which cited Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, as saying that his agency ‘made checks’ and was ‘not monitoring too high radiation levels in the area’ where the accident took place.
Russia has only said that the accident occurred when the submersible was conducting bathymetric measurements in Russian territorial waters.
‘Fire broke out on board a deep-water scientific research vessel that was studying the marine environment of the world ocean on behalf of the Russian navy,’ said the ministry.
It did not explain why there had been a delay in announcing the accident which it was claimed happened on Monday.
‘This is a big loss for the fleet, and in general for the army,’ said President Vladimir Putin said, according to TASS.
‘The crew was highly professional…of the 14 dead, seven were first rank captains and two were Heroes of Russia.’
Putin sent defence minister Sergei Shoigu to the area of the incident, instructing him to report to him directly on the progress of an investigation into what happened.
Putin acknowledged: ‘It is not an ordinary vessel, as we know. It is a scientific-research vessel, its crew is highly professional.’
Western observers doubt the vessel was engaged in scientific research.
‘Usually it’s a cover for different type of work conducted on the seabed’ like laying cables, said one military expert.
The Losharik — named after a Soviet-era cartoon horse — was previously involved in reconnaissance to bolster Putin’s claims to vast swathes of the mineral-rich Arctic seabed.
The small submarine Losharik typically travels with a larger ‘mother’ ship – previously the Orenburg nuclear submarine.
Some reports say that on 1 July the Losharik had a different ‘carrier’ – the more modern Podmoskovie nuclear-powered submarine.
Closed naval port Severomorsk – where foreigners are not permitted entry – was today described as ‘tense’.
Local TV reported that military personnel in the Arctic outpost where the wreckage of the Losharik submersible is now moored had been ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements.
A TV21 crew was not permitted to enter the heavily-guarded hospital where it said three survivors were being treated.