A Russian official has admitted there were missiles aboard the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine when it was ravaged by fire during repair work at a shipyard near Murmansk in late 2011, reviving a six year old mystery about what specific dangers faced the Russian public when the accident occurred.
And while many Russian media rushed to report the official’s remarks as conclusive proof that the submarine was armed with nuclear missiles when it was swept by the blaze, it remains unclear whether they, in fact, had been topped with their warheads at the time the fire swept through the sub, injuring 19.
If they weren’t, then numerous government denials about the submarine fire posing any radiation dangers would hold up. If they were, then the official’s admission constitutes a major revelation that shatters an official policy of lying, and exposes major violations in the navy’s own handling of nuclear weapons during repair work on submarines.
So which is it? We still don’t know.
The comments came from Dmitry Rogozin, Vladimir Putin’s deputy prime minister in charge of military affairs, who Monday gave a wide-ranging interview to the business daily Kommersant. In discussing formative moments in his career, he described the fire aboard the Yekaterinburg as his “baptism.”
This drama, he said, was occasioned by how urgently he had to mobilize his ministry’s machinery to avert disaster, as repair workers had failed to remove “ballistic missiles” from the Yekaterinburg before the fire broke out.
The remarks seemed to come off the cuff. If Rogozin was toppling a wall of secrecy built by his ministry and the Russian Navy, he didn’t seem to be aware of it. But he also didn’t specify if those ballistic missiles had been armed with nuclear warheads at the time in question. Many news outlets in Russia seized on Rogozin’s comments to Kommersant as proof that they were, and headlines of shock and surprise spread nationwide.
The Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, of which the Yekaterinburg is a part, jumped into the fray on Tuesday to insist that the sub’s ballistic missiles weren’t armed with nuclear warheads at the time of the blaze.
But the Navy’s new denials only fuel the problem. At the time of the accident in 2011 it issued so many of them that it became unclear what precisely it was denying – the presence of missiles on the sub, or the presence of nuclear armed missiles on the sub – and, in the case of Rogozin’s defense ministry, whether there had been a fire at all.
The fire aboard the Yekaterinburg submarine came in the early morning hours of December 29, 2011. A spark from a welding torch the Roslyakovo repair yard is said to have ignited flammable oils surrounding the vessel’s navigational equipment, which set off a smolder beneath the rubber coating of the hull.
This eventually erupted into a conflagration of such intensity that the submarine was submerged repeatedly by emergency officials before the fire was extinguished two days later. Local residents reported the blaze was visible from several kilometers away.
In the aftermath fears surrounding the condition of the Yekaterinburg’s nuclear weaponry were compounded by official denials alternating with official silence, leaving a frightened public to seize on worst case scenarios. Initially, the Defense Ministry wouldn’t even confirm that 19 were injured during efforts to extinguish the fire.
In February of 2012, Alexander Vitko, the then deputy commander of Russia’s Northern Naval fleet, told the Russian news site Lifenews that he was “sure that the Yekaterinburg’s weapons had been on board,” but failed to say whether they were armed with warheads.
That was followed by a statement from Rogozin himself in which he too admitted to the “armaments” and went on to vent his outrage that they had been on board when the the Yekaterinburg put in for repairs. Still, he stopped short of clarifying whether the armaments included nuclear warheads.
In fact, it may be that the only direct denial from the Navy or the Defense Ministry about the warheads came today – six years and two months later – when Bellona called the Northern Fleet for clarification of Rogozin’s remarks on Tuesday morning.
Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, himself a former submarine captain, said Monday he tends to think that the missiles weren’t armed. He said submarines are only armed with warheads during times of war, or when they are on patrol far from port – which at the time of its repair yard blaze the Yekaterinburg wasn’t. Likewise, he said that for a sub to put in for repair with warheads is a major violation of Russian Naval policies.
But is he sure? He says he’s not. Perhaps in another six years and two months we will be.