Authors: Clyde Burleson
The sabotage concept reinforced what was already fact. An explosion occurred on board the
. Sabotage, as a cause of that explosion, was in several ways better than the collision theory. Here too, blame for the catastrophe was attributed to a foreign source. If that foreign source was hostile to Russia, so much the better. That theory would reiterate to the Russian people that enemies of their nation are ruthless—and that Russia needs military strength for self-protection. Therefore, funding the military should and must take top priority.
In order to follow all leads, or to give the seemingly groundless sabotage rumors a degree of official credence, the Russian FSB, their Federal Security Service, was called in to investigate. Dagdizel, which had almost slipped from sight concerning the
, was now back in the center ring. The acting director of Dagdizel, Rustam Usmanov, was quoted in
The Moscow Times
defending the Dagdizel experts on board: “These two people were patriots on a sacred mission. Only scum could say that they were kamikaze bombers, and the scum must be drowned in junk.” Another spokesperson called the investigation unwarranted and provided the names of the two experts who had perished, calling them “saints!”
27 August 2000
First morning light came early to Moscow. The skyline of the city is a mix of old and new buildings. One of the newest, its towering spire topped by a TV mast, rose high above all others. It was a minaret redefined by modern architecture. For the last three decades, the Ostankino Tower had been a Moscow landmark. At a little over 1,700 feet from the tip of the antenna to the ground, it was the second tallest broadcast mast in the world. The Seventh Heaven restaurant and an adjacent observation deck had made this a tourist destination. Housing transmission systems for TV and radio signals to some 18 million people in the Moscow area, the structure was also a key element in providing service for 16 of Moscow’s 25 paging companies.
During the early afternoon, at 1520 hours Moscow time, a fire, thought to have been caused by a short circuit, broke out. The blaze started in a narrow part of the tower, some 300 feet above the restaurant. Muscovites could see dense smoke issuing from the concrete structure from all over the city. The built-in fire extinguishing system either malfunctioned or ran out of foam, allowing the blaze time to intensify.
Most tower visitors were safely evacuated. A few people, identified as firefighters and an elevator operator, were trapped inside an elevator car. Before they could be rescued, the car dropped almost a thousand feet, crashing in the basement several yards below street level. This, along with the fall of two more elevators, started a separate fire on the ground. The exact number inside the elevator was difficult to establish. The 300-ton elevator counterweight, traveling at a speed far exceeding 100 miles per hour, followed the car down the shaft and landed on top. When the doors were pried open, only fragments of bodies were found. Later forensic work revealed three had perished.
In the end, 415 firemen worked nonstop and finally tapped out the fire after a grueling 26 hours of exhausting work. All their equipment had to be carried up endless steps as firefighters risked their lives working so high above the ground.
Damage to the tower was staggering. Several experts questioned if the structure could ever be repaired. Others hoped it could be restored. But no one doubted the upset caused by this new disaster. Moscow suffered a massive broadcast radio and TV blackout. Only citizens with satellite dishes were able to receive programming. Paging was severely interrupted, affecting some police and emergency service units.
Since the average Russian spends five hours a day viewing TV, loss of the medium had a huge social impact on the people of Moscow. Having the state-controlled channels off the air was intolerable to the politicians. Putin called for restoration of all services within a week. An emergency transmitter was attached to the building and three days later, RTR and ORT public television were back on the air, sharing a single channel.
NTV, the privately owned TV provider, utilized its satellite signal delivery capability, and since the service had not been given antenna space on the now-burned tower, NTV also had a small transmitter in Moscow. The independent facility stayed on the air. Viewers with dishes, and many Moscow homes, could receive NTV programming, much to the chagrin of government leaders. Demand for satellite receivers quickly began to exceed supplies.
From the government’s standpoint, there was one benefit from this added trouble. The fire took the focus off the
catastrophe. Jokes about the fire, however, were pointed. Poking at the collision theory, one held that Washington had officially “confirmed that no American TV tower ever came close to Ostankino!”
When TV service was restored, though, the
saga regained momentum.
Each of the
crewmen was posthumously awarded the Order of Courage medal. Captain Lyachin was given the Order of Hero of Russia. This, along with the monument being built by presidential decree, was seen by some as an effort to twist the
catastrophe into a heroic event in which the men died defending their country. In a real sense, this was true. The men of the
were brave. And they were on their country’s duty. The resistance came from a military overtone that hinted they were at war.
The next event gave officials concerned with avoiding the placement of blame for the sinking another sabotage possibility. A Web site, operated by Chechen rebels, announced that their well-known field operations commander, Shamil Basayev, was behind the Ostankino blaze. According to the site, his command issued a statement that the rebels had paid a sum equal to $25,000 to an employee who worked in the tower. This individual supposedly carried out the act of terrorism that started the fire.
The rebels’ Web site also again credited its militants with causing the
disaster, repeating the story that a sailor from Dagestan had volunteered to destroy the sub.
Even though the government responded with immediate denials, questions were once again being asked about the
. What had the Government Inquiry Commission learned? When would a full report be made public? If the Chechen rebels were not to blame, who was?
The situation smoldered for a few days. Then came September—and a news report from
, a respected German newspaper.
1–15 September 2000
According to the German publication, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) issued a confidential report to President Putin. This classified document was said to have been developed under the supervision of FSB Chief Nikolai Patrushev. The contents, if true, were devastating.
account, the report indicated that during fleet maneuvers on Saturday, August 12, a cruise missile, fired from the flagship,
Peter the Great
, accidently homed on the
. A new model Granit-type missile traveled some 12.5 miles and either an error in the warhead or failure of the friend-or-foe identifier aboard the
caused the hit.
The newspaper reported that a small blast occurred after the missile entered the water. That was followed by an immensely more powerful undersea explosion. Both detonations were observed from the bridge on the
Peter the Great
, which had been test firing missiles since August 2.
There is an implication to this story that requires clarification. A person standing on the beach at ocean’s edge can look out at the horizon and spot objects about six miles away. The curvature of the earth limits line of sight to approximately that distance. Even a powerful telescope won’t help someone see farther. The only way to overcome the Earth’s curve is to gain a higher vantage point. Climbing onto a lifeguard platform 12 feet above the sandy beach provides additional miles in distant viewing.
The bridge of the
Peter the Great
cruiser is more than 50 feet above the waves. A lookout stationed there with binoculars could easily see a missile hit the sea 12 miles away. An observer would have no trouble recognizing the geyser of foaming white water that would be thrown upward by an explosion as large as the one that tore open the
. Only those sufficiently high above the main deck, though, would have a sight line enabling them to view a distant strike.
As noted earlier, an officer on the
Peter the Great
claimed to be an eyewitness to a missile fall and a great undersea blast. It is possible this account was included in the alleged FSB report. And since the
Peter the Great
was the first ship to reach the
site, there was talk that members of the ship’s command knew where to search.
The newspaper story was quickly denied by Deputy Prime Minister Klebanov, as head of the Government Inquiry Commission, and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. According to Klebanov, his group was centering on three possible causes: collision with another vessel, hitting an old World War II mine, or just possibly an inadvertent explosion on board the
. Klebanov promised to have a more specific answer as soon as his committee completed its study.
Despite official denials, other news stories, concerning torpedoes fired from the
Peter the Great
, began to appear.
Another glimpse into the workings of the propaganda machinery was granted during this time period. Several Russian newspapers published an unsubstantiated “secret” story about American President Bill Clinton. During an alleged telephone conversation with President Putin, Clinton supposedly admitted that a U.S. sub had collided with the
, sinking the Russian submarine. To make amends for this accident, Clinton intervened in the Star Wars missile defense program and brought it to a complete stop.
This was an excellent example of sophisticated damage control. The purported deal between Putin and Clinton was secret. Anyone who believed that story would therefore understand why no physical proof of a collision would ever surface. It was not because there was no evidence. It was because the Russian government was concealing what they had found as part of their confidential agreement with the U.S.
It would be difficult to find a better illustration of how far officials backing the collision theory were willing to go to establish their position as fact. Not all the military, however, had bought off on the matter.
On Sunday, September 3, an interview with Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet, was aired on RTR television. In one stunning statement, he declared that the
could have been hit by a missile fired from another Russian ship. Acknowledging such a strike was unlikely during Russian Navy exercises in the Barents Sea, he strongly indicated that such an event could not be ruled out.
Why the Baltic Fleet commander might have even suggested such a possibility is a mystery. The mere hint that a friendly missile could have been involved was against all official pronouncements.
One reason for such a severe break with ranks might be money. In a military strapped for cash, there must be competition for funds at every level. Damaging the Northern Fleet’s reputation might somehow assist the Baltic Fleet’s quest for capital.
Whatever the motivation, having an admiral mention a missile as a possible cause for the disaster did not go unnoticed. In response, efforts to reinforce the collision theory were now more vigorous than ever.
On September 4, unnamed Defense Ministry officials used the
news service to remake an astonishing claim. A story stated parts of a metal railing that could have broken off the top of a foreign sub during a collision had been recovered from the
site. Admittedly, a hunk of railing is not as spectacular as finding fragments of a conning tower as previously claimed by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev days before. But since no public evidence of the conning tower wreckage had been produced and no further mention was made of that discovery, a rail was better than nothing.
In an effort to cooperate with the Russians to the fullest possible extent, President Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger met with Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov in New York on September 6. In their session, Berger provided the Russian with information about the
sinking that was collected by U.S. intelligence-gathering ships. A U.S. naval officer supplied his Russian counterpart with detailed information compiled from the wide range of acoustical data recorded at the time.
This conciliatory move was apparently insufficient. Nine days later, two members of the Russian Duma, the lower chamber of the legislature, demanded that the United States allow a close inspection of the submarine
This despite the earlier photo session in Norway that showed no damage.
The United States, naturally, refused. Recognizing the ever-ready presence of spies, it was not desirable to have Russian “experts,” supposedly seeking collision-damage evidence, exploring one of America’s more sophisticated submarines.
While the propaganda wonder workers were busy chopping at each other with words and rumors, important work of another kind was being plotted. All other Oscar-II-class boats had been placed on suspended duty and called back to their home ports.
Ranking naval officers harbored a degree of fear about what had happened on the lost submarine. Was the explosion an isolated incident? Was there some inherent defect in the torpedoes or their handling and storage programs? Had the catastrophe been caused by sabotage? Did that mean they had to watch their crews more closely?
The magnitude of the
disaster had dampened the morale of many submariners. There was less enthusiasm for extended undersea duty. And adding to the personnel side of the problem, leaving submarines that cost billions of rubles bobbing at dockside was a total waste of defense capabilities.