Streetwise Professor

December 30, 2011

They Sank It

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:52 am

The Old Year is going out with a bang–several, actually–in the Russian military.  (And just think: they have an extra two weeks to add to the record.)

The biggest of the disasters was the fire aboard the Delta IV class SSN Yekaterinburg.*  This culminates a year of maritime catastrophes in Russia that eclipses even the country’s horrific toll of air disasters in 2011: recall the sinking of the Bulgaria, the fire on another cruise ship in Moscow, and the recent sinking of the oil rig.

The Yekaterinburg caught fire while in dry dock undergoing repairs.  Initial reports state that the fire started when sparks from a welding torch ignited some inflammable material left lying around, which then set alight wooden scaffolding on which men were working.

I say again: set alight wooden scaffolding.  Welding.  Wooden scaffolding.  Nope.  No fire danger there.

The submarine was partially sunk to extinguish the fire.  So Putin can do a reprise of his post-Kursk performance.

But don’t worry.  Medvedev has ordered new Deputy PM Rogozin to conduct a thorough investigation.  I’ve lost count of how many investigations Medvedev has ordered.  I’ve also lost count of how many reports resulting from these investigations have been released, but I think that’s because there haven’t been any to count.

]Speaking of Rogozin, check out his Twitter pic.  WTF is he wearing anyways?  Can anybody identify his costume? Buck Rogers meets Buck Owens?  Or is it Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers?]

[And speaking of accountability in Russia for transport disasters: the captain of a vessel that steamed by the sinking Bulgaria, leaving passengers to drown, was fined $5000, but retains his captain’s license.]

Reuters has a summary of submarine accidents over the past decade plus.  The two incidents involving US boats were not due to maintenance or safety issues.  One was a navigational error.  The other was due to the crew’s failure to take notice of a Japanese fishing vessel while surfacing.  The Russian disasters involve fires and explosions and pretty gruesome death tolls.  All betray a shambolic submarine force.  Shambolic+submarine=don’t go near the water.

Accident #2: An Su-24 crashed while landing, with both crew members surviving.

Screwup #3 did not involve a bang. Quite the opposite.  A woman and five companions managed to waltz into a plant for manufacturing engines for strategic rockets, snapping pictures all the while.  Not once, mind you.  Five times.

Blogger Lana Sator said she and friends met not a soul, much less any security guards, as they roamed around state rocket-maker Energomash’s plant, snapping pictures, on five separate night-time excursions in recent months.

She posted almost 100 pictures of decrepit-looking hardware from inside a rusted engine-fuel testing tower, the plant’s control room and even its roof at

Russian media cited a senior space agency official, speaking anonymously, who described the breach as a shock of the same scale as German pilot Mathias Rust’s brazen Cessna flight under Soviet radar to land on Red Square in 1987.

“It showed a complete inability to protect anything whatsoever,” the official told Izvestia. Space agency Roskosmos declined comment on the incident when reached by Reuters.

But don’t worry! Rogozin has ordered an investigation! [And don’t even think about snapping a photograph in a government office or a polling place or any other random place–like a supermarket, in some cases–unless you want a confrontation and a potential interaction with law enforcement.  Priorities, don’t you know.]

Methinks that soon Dmitry will pine for the days when all he had to do was vent at NATO and the US, rather than actually, like, you know, do something.  Dmitry Gorenburg (at Russian Military Reform–an optimistic title, no?) thinks so too:

These two accidents may serve as an early test for Dmitry Rogozin, the newly appointed Deputy Premier in charge of the defense industry. If he wants to show from the start that he is serious about shaking things up, he may use them as an excuse to push through a major house-cleaning of the industry, parts of which are known to have lax quality control and safety standards. Or he may continue to make strong statements that receive a great deal of media attention with little to no follow through, as he did in his previous position as Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

Good luck with that.

2011 was littered with disasters in Russia.  The entire year: it’s not just for August any more.  In the air, with several horrific air crashes.  In space, with a handful of spectacular launch failures.  And, as noted above, on the waters.  The Russian disaster triad.

The only real notable success to counter this litany of catastrophes is the Bulava missile, which experienced three successful test launches in the last several months of the year, and is on the verge of being operational. This success, when contrasted with the other disasters, only cements Russia’s reputation as Upper Volta with missiles.

*My mistake, in haste: The Yekaterinburg is an SSBN in US Navy nomenclature (B=ballistic for ballistic missile sub).  Interesting that Citizen M had a post on the Robert Amsterdam blog a couple of hours after mine that (a) used the exact phrase “Delta IV class SSN Yekaterinburg”, (b) is titled “Submarine Fire Caps Year of Disasters”–the theme of my post, but (c) doesn’t acknowledge or link to this post.  Google “Delta IV class SSN Yekaterinburg” (in quotes) and you get two hits–my post and the RA post.  I wonder if Citizen M knows a Delta IV from a Delta faucet: if s/he did, s/he might have corrected my SSN vs. SSBN error.

I appreciate people reading and quoting material from the blog, but links and acknowledgement are the blog-socially correct courtesies.  This happens with some frequency (and is not limited to blogs–I’ve had international publications lift material without attribution) and it is just annoying.

Update: Citizen M updated the RA post to include a link and a kind word to SWP.  Thanks.

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  1. WTF is he wearing anyways?

    A Cossack uniform.

    I appreciate people reading and quoting material from the blog, but links and acknowledgement are the blog-socially correct courtesies.

    Tell that to the WSJ.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 30, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  2. It is rather a replica of the uniform of one of the Caucasus regiments from the old Russian Empire times. With the strangest rank insignia – something like colonel of Life-guards.

    Of course, there is no law against wearing costumes in a costume party.

    Comment by LL — December 30, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  3. Is it just me or does he look like he’s dressed for a revue in a Russian gay bar “All in the Tushki”?

    Comment by Joegia — December 30, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

  4. God help the poor people who have to live in a society so colossally indifferent to the basic welfare of its citizens. It seems like the bolshevik morality of persons being unimportant as long as society advances (whatever THAT meant), has degenerated into a completely uncaring society. It is not that the people are stupid-just the opposite-but that they no longer care to care. In other words have become moral idiots in their day to day thoughts and actions. This I am afraid is the price of totalitarian socialism that had the hubris to substitute planing and programs for ordinary life, and thus destroy civil society. May we be saved from the planers in our own midst.

    Comment by Sotos — December 30, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  5. Lol-Lol –

    WTF is his brother in arms wearing anyways?

    A Cossack uniform ?

    Comment by Anders — December 30, 2011 @ 5:49 pm


    Feels good to be in good company with a former senior commander of the Marine Corps in opposing the NDAA.

    But we were all just hysterical idiots who couldn’t read the plain text of the bill, right Professor? Maybe the WSJ should quote you on THAT.

    Comment by Mr. X — December 30, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

  7. The Soviet Union was the zenith of Russian history. What we see now is Russia in its natural state.

    Comment by So? — December 30, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  8. Yep, just natural processes in a half-decomposed evil empire.

    Comment by Ivan — December 31, 2011 @ 12:47 am

  9. There was the fire on the new Vladivostok bridge too, also caused by welding setting alight wooden stuff.

    Comment by Tim Newman — December 31, 2011 @ 1:18 am

  10. Now Citizen X does have a link to you.

    Comment by La Russophobe — December 31, 2011 @ 5:47 am

  11. Russia also found a way to close out 2011 by tainting its national dish.

    Comment by La Russophobe — December 31, 2011 @ 5:59 am

  12. And it opened a brand new gag-inducing restaurant in NYC named after its most famous poet.


    Comment by La Russophobe — December 31, 2011 @ 6:03 am

  13. After a quick look around, Rogozin completed his investigation. He declared that although it burned for more almost 24 hours in a blaze that require more than 500 to extinguish, the vessel was still perfectly sea worthy.

    He didn’t say who’d be on the maiden voyage. But not him though.

    Comment by La Russophobe — December 31, 2011 @ 6:13 am

  14. Tim-I remember the Vladivostok Administration had an online contest to name the bridge that provided a perfect vehicle for humor. The one entry I remember was the Golden Kickback Bridge.

    Comment by pahoben — December 31, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  15. @LR–you mean he didn’t blame it on NATO? I’m reeling from the shock. Though I’m not surprised he declared it seaworthy: (a) he wouldn’t know seaworthy from that caviar in the morgue, and (b) declaring a smoking hulk seaworthy is in the fine Potemkin tradition.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 31, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  16. @Tim & @pahoben. Re the bridge. “Fortunately, the steel cable stays and reinforcements have not been affected and the bridge will be finished on time.” I totally believe that. Any volunteers to be the first to cross?

    Re the oil rig that sank. I’m sure everyone will be surprised that “[t]he towing operation of the oil platform ‘Kolskaya,’ which capsized on December 18 in the sea of Okhotsk, had been carried out with large-scale safety violations, which caused the fatal sinking.” Rated capacity of the rig: 20. Number on board: 67.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 31, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

  17. I was on the rig Okha in 91 on the last Sakhalin exploration well funded from the federal budget. No spare parts for quite some time and it was a monument to human ingenuity that they drilled and tested the well with no fatalities although testing was touch and go for a period.

    At that time Aeroflt was providing helicopter service to the rig and I was to go out on crew change on a chopper.

    Well we are all ready and no chopper. The word comes they can’t find the navigator. The next day no chopper. The word comes they need to replace a filter. Third day no chopper, this time it was fuel or something. The cre to go off is getting antsy. No supply boat for a while so all there is to eat is macaroni and fish caught off the side of the rig. The next day another excuse so I spoke with FEMCO in Yuzhno and a chopper came the following day. When the chopper finally showed it became a battle to get on and when it did take off it kinda limped into the air from excess weight.

    The offshore oil and gas industry in Russia kind of has a history.

    Sakhalin Energy sent one of my babies-the Smit Sakhalin (17,000 HP ice class vessel) to conduct rescue operations. Man do I have some stories about when the Smit Sakhalin showed up in Russian waters and the earliest operations.

    Comment by pahoben — December 31, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

  18. @pahoben: This Smit Sakhalin?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 31, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  19. Yup. We worked out a deal with Smit to buy this and then later the Cebu for long term charter. These vessels worked like champs. At the start the officers were Canadian and the crew Russian. One time they were to make port in northern Japan and I told Smit they had to make the Canadian crew change at that time and the vessel would be required in the field after this for an extended period. They didn’t make the change and then the Canadians get on the wrong side of the Russian crew-very bad place to be. Soon the Captain was so stressed out he is calling continuously about a crew change-minutes were like hours for him. The vessel was required to assist in setting Molikpaq and could not leave the field. The next thing I know we are contacted by the Canadian embassy in Russia. The Captain had sent a fax to the embassy claiming there were being held hostage on the vessel. I was worried that he was going to head south to Japan and just leave the vessel. I got him calmed a bit and Molikpaq arrived and was set successfully

    That crew never returned of course and eventually we got officers that could do their jobs and work with the Russian crews.

    FEMCO had small Neftegaz vessels with a low ice class rating and of course their position was (prior to the first winter) that these were adequate to work at Molikpaq and the Smit vessels were not required. Well the first winter when it started to ice up all the Nefetgaz vessels got stuck in ice and Smit Sakhalin was spending a lot of time freeing them up We got all the their vessels back to port except one and I told FEMCO that one would have to drift to the south until it was free. I spoke to the crew on that vessel and they were fine and we dropped off a bunch of provisions and let it drift to the south where it would be free in say four days. The crew said they were fine with that but the guys in the FEMCO office came unglued worrying about how their higher ups would react. In any event we didn’t have trouble with the Neftegaz vessels working too far into winter after that. The crew and vessel were never in danger and were able to free themselves farther south.

    Looks like I didn’t remember the hp correctly.

    You talk about rolling-man on the bridge of these babies in open water you would not believe the roll.

    Comment by pahoben — December 31, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  20. It sat at anchor for a while over the expected flag issues. It just so happened that a US drilling company bought one of the Shelf semi submersibles from FEMCO and were to take delivery at a Japanese port. They didn’t have a vessel to tow it to the delivery point and so asked about use of Smit Sakhalin. After Smit Sakhalin made the tow and returned to Russian water it was shortly thereafter approved for use.

    Comment by pahoben — December 31, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

  21. Great stories, pahoben! I once spent a night on the bridge of the Yuri Topchev on the radio to the Smit Sakhalin, asking it to smash up ice for me so we could rock-dump, which I mentioned here. They were pretty impressive those Smit vessels, I believe one of them had been to the pole. There were some other supply vessels run by Prisco-Swire, and I knew the shore captain quite well. The Yuri Topchev was a Gazflot vessel, with a crew that had never worked anywhere before and had been turned down from various European jobs because of the crew’s inexperience and the fact that even though it said it was DP-2, it was in fact DP-Assist, which is like sellotaping a Garmin to your bridge and working off that. It couldn’t hold a position for shit. The reason we had to use them was to allow any foreign ship to operate in Russian waters requires the personal approval of the President and such approvals are only granted once per year. So effectively you have to apply a year in advance listing all the ships you want to use, if something changes in the meantime or one of the ships becomes unavailable, tough luck, you need to either postpone the work or use a dangerously unsafe Russian vessel. Good old Russia, eh?

    Incidentally, a friend of mine here in Lagos worked on the jack-up that went down off Sakhalin a few years back when it was on a contract off Denmark. The thing was a right heap of shit, and he was on a tow in flat calm in August and that was hairy enough, unstable as hell apparently. I suspect the Russians either ignored the weather forecast or never bothered to find out what it was.

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 1, 2012 @ 5:57 am

  22. I am sure that is an accurate description.

    We had to spend a ton of money upgrading the Okha before using it to drill two wells in 92.

    Comment by pahoben — January 1, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

  23. I enjoyed your linked article about your time on the Topchev. Too bad they didn’t finish it right-current top of the line ice breakers are pretty darn amazing (I haven’t been on one but the demonstration videos are spectacular).

    We used Van Oord and I remember the company rep was a very competent but kind of crazy Dutch guy. Were they still employed on Sakhalin when you were there?

    I can’t remember if it was before or after we were married but I remember one of my trips to Kholmsk (you mentioned Kholmsk in your post). My wife was owed salary (sound familiar) and she heard that the company was broke but paying in sugar and potatoes. We drove over and she went in and as I remember they were out of sugar and the potatoes were about gone so we returned to Yuzhno with a few potatoes and she never received other payment-God bless her soul.

    She has kept a green card for ten years and at the end of January she finally takes her test for US citizenship. Her English is very poor and so she is learning the answers and questions by rote. I am sad to say I couldn’t answer a number of the questions first time through.

    Comment by pahoben — January 1, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  24. The Yuri Topchev was beautifully finished inside, you could not get a cigarette paper in the joinery, and all materials were top quality as you’d expect from a Norwegian yard. The inside was as cosy as a famhouse lounge.

    I don’t remember Van Oord, but I was only briefly involved in the marine side of things. By the time I arrived in 2006 Sakhalin had largely sorted itself out and was a far cry from the early days of the late ’90s and early ’00s. I do regret not going there earlier, but it was not through lack of trying on my part.

    Good luck with your wife’s citizenship test, BTW.

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 2, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  25. “Seaworthy” vessel has a giant gaping hole in it.

    Comment by La Russophobe — January 4, 2012 @ 5:12 am

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