Staunton, August 11 – The deadly July 1 fire on Russia’s super-secret Losharik submarine “showed the world,” Polish journalist Michał Fiszer says, “that the Russian fleet represents a real threat not because of its military might but because of the conditions under which it operates.”
In a Polityka commentary, Fiszer says that this situation threatens Russia in the first instance but other countries as well (polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/swiat/1800958,1,marynarka-wojenna-rosji-jest-w-tak-zlym-stanie-ze-zagraza-samej-sobie.read; available in Russian at inosmi.ru/military/20190806/245585267.html).
Since 2000, 294 sailors have lost their lives in submarine accidents, the Polish journalist says. More than half – 156 – have been on board Russian vessels. China, Argentina and India account for most of the rest, with only two British, one American, one Canadian and one Equadoran having lost their lives in submarine accidents.
While details about the specific cause of the Losharik submarine remain scare – it isn’t clear whether the problem was with the reactors or the torpedo tubes – it is worrisome because it is the second such deadly submarine accident since the 20th century. The first, of course, involved the Kursk on August 12, 2000, in which 118 Russian sailors lost their lives.
Moscow has done little to ensure that its sunken submarines don’t leak radioactivity or dangerous chemicals into the sea. In 2003, Fiszer says, five Scandinavian and Baltic countries gave the Russian fleet 200 million US dollars to do so; but it remains unclear how much the Russians have achieved in this regard.
“The Russian navy,” the Polish journalist continues, “is only a shadow of its former strength.” Emblematic of its decline has been the fate of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov. It has been under repair since operating off Syria but the completion of its refitting has been delayed by the loss of the floating drydock in which it was kept.
Now, Moscow officials say it will return to duty in 2021; but as Fiszer notes, “no one believes that,” including almost certainly those who are putting out this line. Just how desperate Moscow is to get things moving is reflected in talk about moving a floating drydock from the Pacific to Arkhangelsk, an almost impossible task.
But the biggest indication of the problems the Russian fleet presents for its complement of sailors and for the environment is this: every time the Kuznetsov or some other major Russian naval vessel puts to sea, these ships are accompanied by tug boats capable of towing them back to Russian ports if they break down.
In the last two weeks, others have been expressing concern about Russian ships. Alaskans and environmentalists are worried about the possibility of an accident on the recently launched Russian floating atomic power station build to service the Northern Sea Route (hebarentsobserver.com/ru/arktika/2019/08/na-alyaske-obespokoeny-rossiyskoy-pates).
And a deadly explosion near the northern port of Severeodvinsk is prompting new questions and concerns about security in that sector of the Russian naval effort (thebarentsobserver.com/ru/bezopasnost/2019/08/pod-severodvinskom-proizoshel-vzryv-reaktivnogo-dvigatelya-rakety-est-zhertvy).