Few want to talk about how 14 sailors met their deaths on a Russian engineering marvel. Fewer still want to talk about what they were doing off Norway's waters.
There could hardly have been a more terrifying place to fight a fire than in the belly of the Losharik, a mysterious, deep-diving Russian submarine.
Something, it appears, had gone terribly wrong in the battery compartment as the sub made its way through Russian waters 400km north of the Arctic Circle on July 1.
A fire on any submarine may be a mariner's worst nightmare, but a fire on the Losharik was a threat of another order altogether. The vessel is able to dive far deeper than almost any other sub, but the feats of engineering that allow it to do so may have helped seal the fate of the 14 sailors killed in the disaster.
The only thing more mysterious than what exactly went wrong that day is what the sub was doing in 300 metres of water just 110km east of Norway in the first place.
The extraordinary incident may offer yet another clue to Russia's military ambitions in the deep sea and how they figure into a plan to leverage Arctic naval power to achieve the country's strategic goals around the globe — including the ability to choke off vital international communication channels at will.
Moscow has been unforthcoming about the Losharik disaster and insists that the sub was merely a research vessel. The Norwegian military, whose observation posts, navy and surveillance aircraft track Russia's Northern Fleet for Nato, refuses to say what it may have seen. The only civilian witnesses to the rescue that followed the fire may have been a ragtag band of Russians fishing illegally in the area.
But it was clearly a mission of the highest sensitivity, and the roster of the dead included some of the most decorated and experienced officers of the Russian submarine corps.
To understand why these men may have been on a submarine that can dive to perhaps 600m — more than 10 times deeper than manned US subs are believed to operate — consider what criss-crosses the floor of the North Atlantic: endless kilometres of fibre-optic cables that carry a large fraction of the world's internet traffic, including trillions of dollars in financial transactions. There are also cables linking the sonar listening devices that litter the ocean floor.
Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, and his commanders have increasingly stressed the importance of controlling the flow of information to keep the upper hand in a conflict, says Katarzyna Zysk, head of the Centre for Security Policy at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo.
No matter where in the world a conflict might be brewing, cutting those undersea cables, Zysk says, might force an adversary to think twice before risking an escalation of the dispute.
"The Russian understanding is that the level of unacceptable damage is much lower in Europe and the West than during the Cold War," she says. "So you might not have to do too much."
Not just any submarine can do that — at least, not across nearly the entire expanse of the sea bottom.
But the Losharik is not just any submarine. Its inner hull is thought to consist of a series of titanium spheres holding the control room, the bunks, the nuclear reactor and other equipment. Its name, it appears, was taken from an old Russian cartoon character, a horse assembled from small spheres.
The spheres are cramped, and they are joined by even smaller passageways.
A common procedure when there is a fire on a sub is to close the hatches to slow its spread. If that was done on the Losharik, the crew members may have found themselves trapped in small, dim, smoke-filled chambers.
And if they were in the chamber containing the battery compartment where the trouble appears to have started, they may have been battling flames raging in spaces as narrow as half a metre, says Peter Lobner, a former electrical officer on a US submarine.
"That's the creepiest place you ever want to be on a submarine," Lobner says.
'A very Russian story'
The Russian fishermen were out in a small boat, moving eastward, probably in restricted waters, when a submarine burst from the water in front of them, one later told a local newspaper in Murmansk, The SeverPost.
"We were heading towards Kildin," a nearby island, the fisherman told a SeverPost reporter, "and then, about half-past nine in the evening, a submarine surfaces. Suddenly and completely surfaces. I have never seen anything like it in my life. On the deck, people were running around making a fuss."
The submarine they saw was not the Losharik but a much larger vessel: its mother ship. The Losharik is designed to fasten to its underside, so it can be carried along for servicing, transported over long distances or — as may have happened on July 1 off Norway — be rescued.
Why Russia did not secure the area is unknown, but if the fisherman's account is accurate, it appears they were the only outside witnesses to the secret rescue operation. They were fishing in a restricted area — but they decided to talk about what they saw anyway.
"This is a very Russian story," says Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The submarine sped away, but there was no immediate alert from Russia to the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority about a possible nuclear incident in the Barents Sea, said Astrid Liland, head of the nuclear preparedness section.
Tass, the official Russian news agency, reported the accident the following day without mentioning that the submarine was nuclear-powered. The SeverPost story appeared the next morning.
Russia and Norway, Liland says, have an agreement to notify each other in the case of incidents involving nuclear installations. "Unfortunately," she says, "Russia interprets that agreement not to include military installations such as submarines."
As convoluted as it is in so many ways, the tale of the Losharik, and the growing power of Russia's Northern Fleet, begins with at least one very simple explanation, says Zysk, the Norwegian analyst.
"There's a special place in Putin's heart for the navy," she says. "That's one of the key symbols of a great power."
The Northern Fleet is at the top of Putin's military budget, which includes top-drawer items like the most advanced surface vessels and cruise missiles. In 2014, the Northern Fleet put the Arctic brigades under its command; soldiers equipped with the latest gear for cold-climate warfare. New generations of ballistic-missile and attack submarines are also being deployed.
With all that naval power, the quickest way for Russia to surprise the United States would be to steam from the Arctic to the North Atlantic, says Heather Conley, senior vice-president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"It's really becoming a much more dynamic area," Conley says. "It does feel like we're updating The Hunt for Red October."
There is also an eye toward economic benefit, Conley says: Russia has made no secret of its desire to control a northern shipping lane through the Arctic as ice recedes because of climate change and to expand its oil and gas production.
Over the past five years, 14 airfields have been opened or rebuilt along the Northern Sea Route; three fully autonomous bases have opened on Arctic archipelagoes. Billions of dollars have been spent on fields for gas production on the Yamal Peninsula, where total volumes are estimated at almost 17 trillion cubic metres. The natural gas from the Yamal will ultimately feed the pipeline now being built through the Baltic Sea to supply Western Europe.
Still, with the extreme difficulty of recovering oil and gas north of the Yamal, and the unknowns of tourism and foreign shipping, the economics may not add up for another half-century — if then, says Andreas Osthagen, a senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, near Oslo, and author of Coast Guards and Ocean Politics in the Arctic.
Beyond Russia's need to protect the nuclear deterrent itself, the key to understanding Russia's keen interest in the Arctic, Zysk says, is to bear in mind what Moscow does not want to do: become directly involved in any extended conflict with Nato. Russia knows it does not have the resources to win that kind of conflict, Zysk says.
For that reason, no matter where a conflict begins, she says, "Russia would do anything to maintain the strategic initiative." She adds, "The information superiority comes here."
Russian generals, for example, speak openly of sowing chaos in the government financial system of an adversary, Zysk says, and disrupting seabed cables "would certainly fit into the objective".
A 2017 report by Policy Exchange, a research and educational institute in the United Kingdom, found that seabed cables carry 97 per cent of the data in communications globally, including about US$10 trillion in financial transactions a day. The cables are largely unprotected and easy to find. As recently as a few years ago, US military and intelligence officials reported that Russian submarines had often been operating near them.
Because the internet can reroute data when cables are damaged, Western analysts have often dismissed the dangers of sabotage. But considering the vital role of data in Western institutions of all kinds, Zysk says, simply applying pressure by degrading the network could be enough.
"When people lose Facebook and Twitter — oh, my God!" she says, not entirely facetiously.
Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House, in the United Kingdom, says a specialised craft like the Losharik might help test the West's ability to respond if cables were cut.
"This is part of Russia's newfound capability of messing with us," Boulegue says.
An uncrackable egg
As for the accident itself, few expressed surprise that a jewel of the Russian submarine fleet might catch fire not very far from its home base — probably in water no more than 300m deep — leaving most of its crew dead. The Russians, some experts say, seem to have a greater tolerance for risk than the West.
The Losharik was designed in the 1980s but, delayed by the fall of the Soviet Union, it was not launched until 2003, according to a forthcoming revised edition of Cold War Submarines by historians Norman Polmar and K.J. Moore.
In 2012, the Losharik was part of a scientific operation to drill 3.2km into the Arctic crust and retrieve rock samples. The best public view of the sub came a few years later, in 2015, when it surfaced during a photo shoot of a Mercedes SUV by the Russian edition of Top Gear.
Like the shell of an egg, the vessel's titanium spheres resist terrific pressure much more readily than a traditional, elongated hull, Polmar says. "It can go slowly to the bottom, and it won't crack," he says.
Polmar says there is "nothing in the US fleet to match" the depths that the Losharik can take its crew. Various reports, he says, place the mysterious craft's maximum depth at anywhere from 2500m to 6096m.
Lobner, the former US submarine officer, says "we have nothing except unmanned vehicles" operating at such depths.
Still, while some see an engineering marvel, others see evidence that Russia may be unable to build the kind of sophisticated, autonomous underwater drones the United States appears to rely on.
"They would rather adapt existing systems, modernise them and try to muddle through," Boulegue says. "So, no wonder these things keep exploding." Boulegue believes accidents have been far more common than publicly known.
John Pike, director of think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said the Losharik fire suggested that the Russian military was still contending with some longstanding issues: corrupt contractors and problems with quality control in manufacturing, spare parts supply chains and maintenance.
"I assume that every other sub in the Russian fleet has similar problems," Pike says. "I just think the whole thing is held together with a lot of baling wire and spit."
A Russian business newspaper, Kommersant, citing sources close to an investigation into the Losharik incident, said that when smoke was first detected in the sub, it did not appear to be catastrophic. The Losharik may have been docked with its mother ship at the time, Kommersant said.
After a partial evacuation, 10 crew members stayed to fight the fire along with four reinforcements from the mother ship. The situation became more and more dire as oxygen was depleted from two emergency breathing systems aboard the sub, Kommersant reported. The crew began succumbing to smoke inhalation, and there may have been an explosion in the battery compartment, the newspaper said.
Lobner says that even in an ordinary nuclear submarine, clearances in the battery compartment are so narrow that a routine inspection often requires shimmying through in a prone or supine position. The crew quarters would be small and could quickly fill with smoke, he says.
"This wouldn't be like going into a burning house," Lobner says.
Eyes open. Mouths shut.
The Russians are not the only ones who don't want to talk about the Losharik.
Admiral James Foggo, commander of the US 6th Fleet, whose area of operations includes Europe, declined to be interviewed for this article. So did Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, chief of defence for the Norwegian Armed Forces.
Even Private Sander Badar, a young conscript in the Norwegian Army, guards his words carefully as he trains a pair of huge binoculars on the waters off Russia's northern coast from his observation post on a ridge nearly 300m above the Barents Sea. It was in that direction, on the other side of a stretch of coastline called the Fisherman's Peninsula, that the Losharik burned.
"It's not a secret that we are watching over their border and seeing what's happening there," Badar says.
With outposts like Badar's, as well as surveillance aircraft and navy ships, the Norwegian military serves as Nato's eyes and ears on Russia's doorstep. But ask about Russian submarines and Badar declines to reveal what he may have seen.
When Tass first reported the Losharik fire, it said 14 sailors were killed aboard a "deep-sea station", without mentioning its nuclear reactor. The next day, a spokesman for Putin said information on the accident "belongs to the category of top-secret data".
In the following days, Putin posthumously conferred the nation's highest honor, Hero of the Russian Federation, to four of the crew members and lesser awards to the other 10. At the funeral in St. Petersburg, a navy officer said the crew had "prevented a planetary catastrophe".
Russia says it plans to fully restore the sub and put it back into service. Not everyone seems worried about that.
One retired US rear admiral, John Padgett, a former commander of the Pacific Submarine Force, says he has no concerns about the United States losing ground to subs like the Losharik.
"We go as deep as we need to go, as fast as we need to go," Padgett says.
But Colonel Eystein Kvarving, chief of public affairs at Norwegian Joint Headquarters, makes clear that the stakes are high.
The Norwegian military, Kvarving says, has a direct Skype line to the commander of Russia's Northern Fleet and tests it once a week. In the months since the fire, he says, the Russians have carried out their largest naval exercises since the Cold War.
How might the Losharik fit in?
"You go deep; you go silent," Kvarving says. "Undetected is the key word. If they can go undetected where they please, that is a big concern."
Written by: James Glanz and Thomas Nilsen
Photographs by: Mathias Svold
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