K-159 doomed by expectations of Western funding

Publish date: October 17, 2003

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The K-159, a Russian first generation November class submarine, was doomed when it set sail, towed by a tugboat from the Northern Fleet's semi-abandoned Gremikha Base, on August 29th, according to the officer responsible for the failed operation.

Photos provided to Bellona by Russian website KSF.RU—which is run by journalists from closed naval cities on the Kola Peninsula—capture the K-159 and its crew the day before it sank. The condition of the submarine and the floatation pontoons attached to it seem to be far short of seaworthy, to say the least.

The K-159 was on its way to the Polyarny shipyard near the Arctic city of Murmansk for dismantlement when it sank during the early morning hours of August 30th, two days out to sea. The bulk of funding for dismantling the K-159—and 15 other non-strategic submarines, which were to be towed from Gremikha—was to come from Western donor countries.

An ongoing investigation of the tragedy, which claimed the lives of nine of the K-159’s 10 crew members, was launched by the Military Prosecutor General’s office, which has so far only brought charges against Captain Second Class Sergei Zhemchuzhnov, who was overseeing the towing operation.

Admiral Gennady Suchkov, the commander of the Northern Fleet, was suspended in September after the Russian Navy’s Chief of Staff Vladimir Kuroyedov called the K-159 accident "a series of preventable mistakes."


Western Donors Must Ensure Safe Spending of Their Money
Retired rusting hulks of submarines like the K-159 are indeed an extremely urgent issue. But it is equally important to ensure that donor nations exercise greater control over the dismantling and nuclear and radiation safety projects that their funding grants facilitate.

"Western donors cannot simply give financial support without reviewing each stage of the process they are funding—for example the process of dismantling a nuclear submarine," Alexander Nikitin, former submarine captain first class and currently chairman of Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, said shortly after the K-159’s accident.

Donor countries must insist on evaluating the projects they are funding from the point of view of the hazards the implementation of these projects could cause. Whether the observed lack of project oversight comes from the donors’ naivete or their unwillingness to delve into Russia’s infamous bureaucracy, such neglect can have dramatic effects. According to Nikitin, "if international donors pay for operations that lead to such incidents like the K-159 sinking, then it would be better if these international donors don’t give any money at all."

Norway pioneered the efforts of the international community to fund the dismantlement of non-strategic submarines and this summer signed a contract with Russian shipyards to dismantle two Victor II class submarines. Both submarines had been located at Gremikha and towed to a dismantlement site for destruction.

Norway was, in effect, trapped when it paid for the dismantlement—and specifically the dangerous towing—of the vessels for the simple reason that it had not properly investigated the contract from the point of view of safe submarine destruction procedures. The money was simply transferred to the concerned shipyards that hire contractors of their choosing to carry out various aspects of the work. When asked to comment on this apparent oversight, officials from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said somewhat evasively that it was "a Russian matter."