Last month, Russia seized Ukraine's combat dolphins. This week, the U.S. Navy was rumored to be deploying its own dolphins to the Black Sea. The Great Game seemed upon us once again: the warm-water game of cold war. But more likely, the American media just got played by a Kremlin mouthpiece.
According to a widely reported dispatch on the Russian news site Izvestia, the Navy had announced that it was transporting 20 trained dolphins and 10 sea lions to the Ukrainian region for an unprecedented NATO joint training exercise with Ukrainian forces—who were the only other military in the world to utilize dolphins until Russia bogarted their bottle-nosed brigade last month.
There were a bunch of problems with that Izvestia report, however. The idea of a NATO joint exercise with Ukraine, in the Black Sea under Russia's nose, was pretty incredible. Those operations tend to involve a lot of prior planning and far more assets than just a few dozen marine animals. And while joint maneuvers often have a politically provocative undertone, placing military assets in close proximity during a simmering crisis seemed inadvisable... to say nothing of "training" sea mammals in open water uncontrolled by the U.S. military.
Also, it turned out that the Navy spokesman cited in Izvestia's and RT's reports hasn't worked for the Navy in some time.
When reached by NBC News for comment, a representative of the U.S. Navy's dolphin unit said: "There's no basis to the story." Another Navy spokeswoman told the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman something similar today: There are no U.S. animals heading into harm's way.
The Navy's marine mammals program, which uses the dolphins mainly in support of minesweeping operations, has been around for a long time but never operates without controversy—mainly criticism from animal rights activists who question the ethics of using mammals for hazardous martial applications the critters can't fully comprehend.
This week's news was a different kind of controversy, however, brewed by a Russian newspaper that's not directly owned by the state. But last fall, German investors sold their 7.5 percent share in National Media Group—which owns Izvestia—back to the Russian company's other shareholders. Chief among those shareholders is Yury Kovalchuk, a business oligarch and longtime friend of Vladimir Putin's who has been identified in the past as the Russian president's "personal banker."
So was the dolphin rumor a Kremlin-backed attempt to screw with the U.S. media and government? If so, it was kind of a silly one. But in any case, Izvestia and RT, its less-abashed partner in Russian boosterism, haven't corrected the record. In the meantime, the dolphins and sea lions sleep soundly in San Diego.
[Photo credit: U.S. Navy]