Russia Submarine Fire Kills 14, Sparks Concern As Vladimir Putin and Mike Pence Change Plans At Same Time

The fire that killed 14 sailors onboard one of Moscow's research submersible vehicle Monday may not have had major geopolitical implications, but Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision the following day to cancel his appearance at a scheduled event coinciding with a separate schedule change by Vice President Mike Pence initially sparked concerns that an international incident was underway.

Putin was set to appear Tuesday at the Rivers of Russia forum, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the state-run Tass Russian News Agency that the Russian leader had "canceled his participation" and would be represented by Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets. Instead, Putin was "scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the near future."

No initial reasoning was provided, though the official outlet speculated it may have something to do with the Russian Defense Ministry's recent statement on the deadly incident involving the submersible craft that has since been brought to the northern Severomorsk naval base.

Around this same time, early reports emerged that Pence had rerouted his plane back to Washington after suddenly canceling his appearance at a discussion on the national opioid crisis in Manchester, New Hampshire. Twitter users especially began to express anxieties that the move was related to Putin's own schedule shift and some accounts even began reporting on an "emergency meeting" of the European Union Security Council, a body that does not exist.

russia navy putin Severomorsk
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) while attending the Navy Day in the city of Severomorsk, July 27, 2014. Fourteen Russian seamen have died in a fire on a deep-water research submersible, Russia's Defense Ministry said on July 2. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

While she did not offer an exact explanation as to why the vice president switched up his plans, Pence's press secretary Alyssa Farah revealed he had never left the capital and that the matter was not serious.

"Something came up that required the @VP to remain in Washington, DC. It's no cause for alarm. He looks forward to rescheduling the trip to New Hampshire very soon," Farah tweeted. "The @VP never left Washington, DC. There was no 'emergency callback.' Something came up that required the VP to stay in DC. We'll reschedule NH shortly."

Tass then reported on Putin and Shoigu's meeting, in which the president called on his general "to go to Severomorsk in order to personally hear the reports and guide the commission at unambiguously identifying the causes of this tragedy." It is the largest loss of life for the Russian navy since 20 on board the K-152 Nerpa died as a result of an accidental discharge of freon gas used to suppress fires.

Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry revealed that the 14 sailors died Monday "as a result of inhaling combustion products aboard a research submersible vehicle designated for studying the seafloor and the bottom of the World Ocean in the interests of the Russian Navy after a fire broke out during bathymetric measurements."

The ministry credited "the self-sacrificing actions of the team" for extinguishing the blaze, though it was unclear if there were any survivors.

Russian news outlet RBK Group cited an unnamed security source that identified the affected submersible as the AS-12 Losharik, a deep-sea-diving, nuclear-powered submarine. While the location of the incident also remained unknown Murmansk region governor Andrey Chibis called it "a terrible tragedy" on Facebook and said "we are ready to provide all the necessary assistance to the Northern Fleet, the Murmansk region and the fleet always support each other in difficult moments."