Perils of Water

Three interesting stories, all tied with Russia and water.

1. The explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia. Though the official Russian version is that it was a blown transformer, the Chechen separatists / terrorists are claiming that it’s their work:

A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against  Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a  host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial  sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil  pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage  power lines, and sabotage at factories.

In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried  out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power  plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.

[…talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the “apostates” with death]

Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.

However, they’re not exactly the most reliable of sources (they were wrong in their prediction that Russia would invade Georgia in mid-August 2008), and there could be genuine infrastructural reasons for the dam failure, such as the well-known depreciation of Soviet-era infrastructure. (Though it should be noted that from Wikipedia this dam seems to have had a bad history of accidents even throughout the Soviet era).

On other hand, according to people in the know (from Untimely Thoughts), this could not have been a question of aging infrastructure, but rather incompetence at the highest levels:

It takes serious skill to screw up a hydro plant.  The only energy is  water falling in ready built channels.  My apprenticeship was in a large electrical machine plant.  Amongst other things we built hydrosets.  I later did insulation design for hydro (and also nuclear) generating sets.  A 30 year old turbine is not old. The parts that might age are the insulation and the bearings, both easy to maintain.  This was not an insulation failure. The bearings can be monitored automatically for vibration and temperature rise (UK practice since before my apprenticeship began in 1970).  It is easy to predict failure and replace months before any real problems begin.  Poor maintenance is not strong enough a term for this.  It would require acts of serious criminal negligence to put a hydroset in the way of danger.  The same goes for the ability to open a sluice gate so quickly that there was a serious overpressure of water.  The motors opening the sluice gate wouldn’t be able to run fast enough.  It takes over 12 hours to run a big hydroset up to full speed.  (Pumped storage schemes use different, less efficient channel designs and water channels).  If it was possible to open the gates with simple gravity then the design was appalling in the first place. The responsibility for this goes up to the top of Roshydro.  An example should be set to encourage other bosses to pay attention to their maintenance bills.  Corporate Manslaughter anyone?  Do the workers families have access to the legal (and supporting financial) capacity to demand damages?  Will the Roshydro security director persuade them otherwise?

In other words, they didn’t give a dam.

The effects are certainly serious, with 6000MW of power going off-line, several billions of dollars in damage and 500,000 tons of annual aluminium production curtailed. It would certainly be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to this. This is yet another blow to Siberia this year, which has lost the bulk of its winter harvest to drought and fires this year.

So far, the official reaction seems to be pure Показуха (appearing to be doing something, but not really), with Putin calling for a “sweeping probe” of the nation’s infrastructure. It would have been more useful if a) these things were done a few years ago, instead of building polar bridges to nowhere, and b) in any case with the drying up of foreign credits and investment, Russia will not have the means to address its vast infrastructural problems in the next few years bar much heavier state intervention. Thus, yet more incentive and impetus for the return of the Russian state as the spearhead of economic development in the next decade.

2. Kursk – A Submarine in Troubled Waters by Jean-Michel Carré, 2005.

This is a very interesting examination of the Kursk sinking in August 2000, which goes contrary to the official claims, both Western and Russian, that the tragedy was due to a torpedo detonation caused by hydrogen peroxide propellant seeping out from underneath the torpedo casings. It presents evidence that during the exercises, which involved the testing of the advanced, supercavitating Shkval torpedos in the presence of Chinese observers (and prospective buyers), the US submarine USS Toledo, which was tailing the Kursk, crashed into it and damaged it. To cover its tracks, and upon what it perceived as the Kursk readying a torpedo to launch against the Toledo in retaliation, the USS Memphis pre-emptively torpedoed the Russian submarine. The USS Toledo appeared damaged off a Norwegian naval base according to satellite photos and took a suspiciously long time to limp back across the Atlantic to the Norfolk naval base, where it was promtly hidden from civilian eyes. Given the political implications of the truth, both Western and Russian leaders connived to cover it up (recall that Russia was still pro-Western at the time). Soon after, Russia received a 10bn $ loan on favorable terms from the IMF. According to the French film-maker, the sinking of the Kursk, with all the ensuing criticism of the government, marked a seminal point in Russia’s drift back to authoritarianism.

It has its holes, but an intriguing thesis / conspiracy theory. Recommended viewing.

3. I am rather cold to the recent sensationalist talk of Arctic piracy, especially Latynina’s bizarre claims about the ship being used to transport nuclear materials to Syria at the behest of the Russian government (there are far more reliable routes, even if Russia thought it worthwhile to do this). However, there’s a far more interesting case of real piracy being played out in the Black Sea. Abkhazia Threatens Tbilisi Over Seizure of Fuel Tanker:

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region accused Tbilisi on Thursday of trying to suffocate the Black Sea territory and threatened a “proportionate response” after Georgian authorities detained a tanker delivering fuel.

Georgia has stepped up efforts to isolate Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, since a five-day war with Russia last August. It has banned economic and commercial activities there without its permission.

The Turkish captain of the tanker, operating under a Panama flag, was remanded in custody Wednesday and faces up to 24 years imprisonment if found guilty of smuggling and violating the ban on unauthorized economic activity.

“Under the law in force in Georgia, we don’t even have the right to breathe without permission from Tbilisi,” Abkhazia’s foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, told Interfax.

“We warned Georgia that we can make a proportionate response, take the same kind of actions that the Georgian side allows itself,” he said.

The tanker, with its Turkish and Azeri crew, was detained in the Black Sea off the Georgian coast on Monday carrying 2,000 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of diesel.

No date has been set for the captain’s trial. Abkhazia said it was the third case of “Georgian piracy” this year. The tanker remains in the Georgian port of Poti.

This is a de facto naval embargo and, it could be argued by Abkhazia and Russia, an act of war against a sovereign state. Again, Russia is caught in the cleft of a dilemma. On the one hand, it could confirm it is serious about its recognition of Abkhazian independence and take military action to lift the embargo… on the other hand, this will be met by a chorus of Western condemnation and more to the point, this would be a dangerous move given the US naval presence in the region.


  1. The Emirate are a bunch of raving Islamists, the incompetence version is much more plausible. What concerns Georgian leadership they always feel emboldened by the presence of NATO. But Russia does not only have the option of naval blockade to exert pressure on Georgia. One of the possible ways could involve secret service and abroad studying Georgian golden youth, or perhaps a threat of airstrike against a strategic point in the interior of Georgia. The Western chorus of condemnation might be loud but objectives will be achieved nevertheless.

  2. Interesting article – do you have a link for “Untimely Thoughts”, please? Is it by Peter Lavelle – I can’t find anything recent by him? Also my guess is that he’s not writing a public blog, now that he’s back working for ATON.

  3. More on the case of the confiscated Turkish-crewed ship en route to Abkhazia, seized by the Georgian Coast Guard in international waters and towed to Poti in Georgia barrier to Turkish ships in Black Sea.

    On Aug. 17, a Turkish ship named Buket was sailing 96 miles off the coast of Sinop near the border of the Turkish economic region when it was detained by the Georgian Coast Guard and brought into the port of Poti.

    The crew have been detained and the captain was sentenced to a frankly ludicrous 24 years in prison.

    Given these facts, it seems clear Georgia is openly practicing piracy (since the ship was seized in international waters) and hostage taking, and I would imagine constitutes a valid-enough casus belli for Turkey (piracy), Abkhazia (violation of territorial integrity) and Russia (allied with Abkhazia).

  4. Interesting article. Most of this information did not make it over to the western media outlets.