Journalists stand near Russia's President Vladimir Putin as he meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss a recent incident with a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, in Moscow, Russia, July 2, 2019.
Journalists stand near Russia's President Vladimir Putin as he meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss a recent incident with a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, in Moscow, Russia, July 2, 2019.

Russian officials have come under intense public scrutiny for their response to a submarine fire that left 14 dead. Some media figures have even alleged a cover-up, likening the government's response to that of the Soviet Union's after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. 

On Monday, a fire broke out on the vessel as it was collecting biometric data in Russian waters, according to the defense ministry. The seamen aboard died of smoke inhalation, though it is unclear whether or not the fire left any survivors and if the vessel was submerged at the time of the fire. 

While the fire occurred Monday, however, Russian officials did not release information about the incident until a full day later, on Tuesday. 

"Absolutely nothing is known at the moment — who, what — I don't understand one thing: Why did a day go by and only then did they make the statement about the deceased?" said Yevgeny Buntman, a Russian radio anchor. 

'State secrets'

Even after releasing information about the fire, officials have been markedly reserved about providing more details regarding the submarine and its mission.  

Putin's spokesman Dimitry Peskov refused to answer questions about the name and mission of the submersible, instead redirecting them to the defense ministry. He also refused to answer when asked if the vessel was powered by a nuclear reactor. 

Regional news site The Bell likened the government response to the Soviet Union's response to the Chernobyl disaster, writing, "Nearly a day without information about the accident in a nuclear facility and the need to look out for Norwegian statements about the level of radiation should have given a shudder to those who remember the Chernobyl nuclear power station." 

Norwegian authorities said on Tuesday they had not detected any irregular radiation. 

Peskov also said details about the ship are "totally classified," and they amount to state secrets.  

"There is nothing illegal about this. It fully corresponds to the Russian law on state secrets," said Peskov.  

Mission speculation

Independent Russian media outlets have reported the sub was an AS-12, a deep-diving submersible that can maintain a higher level of secrecy compared to other submersibles.

Some analysts and American officials have speculated that part of the vessel's mission was to monitor and tamper with fiber-optic communication cables on the seabed, although this has not been confirmed.  

Putin has come under scrutiny for his response to submarine disasters in the past. In August 2000, a nuclear submarine sank, killing all 118 sailors onboard. Putin was sharply criticized for what many saw as inadequate rescue operations and a slow response.