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Russia’s Newest Fear-Mongering Tactic: Making Up Dolphin Wars

Russia’s Newest Fear-Mongering Tactic: Making Up Dolphin Wars

The Russian daily Izvestia would like you to believe that the first direct confrontation between American and Russian forces could come in the form of clashes between the two countries’ combat dolphins swimming in the Black Sea.

According to the paper, the U.S. Navy plans to deploy 20 combat dolphins and 10 sea lions in the Black Sea, where they are to conduct exercises and test new gear. The detailed article even quotes a Navy official telling the paper that the dolphins will be testing a new form of armor developed at the University of Hawaii.

There’s only one problem: Almost none of it is true.

Ed Budzyna, the deputy director of public affairs at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, called the story "completely erroneous" and fabricated. "The person quoted has been retired for 8 or 9 years," Budzyna told Foreign Policy, referring to the Navy spokesperson Tom LaPuzza to whom Izvestia had sourced the report.

The story was nonetheless picked up by the English-language news service RIA Novosti, and several outlets piled on with coverage, including Britain’s the Mirror and the Atlantic’s The Wire

The falsified report about the deployment of America’s mammalian warriors comes after reports surfaced last month that the Russian army would be absorbing Ukraine’s combat dolphin program, which was based in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia. An employee at Sevastopol’s oceanarium told RIA Novosti that the formerly Ukrainian dolphins would be receiving new equipment from their new Russian caretakers.

So with Russian dolphins gearing up with new technology, it’s perhaps not surprising that Izvestia’s fabricated report claimed that America’s dolphins would be testing "new armors" in the waters of the Black Sea. (Could there be a weird weaponized dolphin arms race brewing? Alas.)

Navies use dolphins and their sonar capabilities to perform a variety of underwater duties — everything from attaching buoys to sea mines to patrolling waters for enemy divers. Both the United States and the Soviet Union launched their marine mammal programs at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The American dolphins were deployed in the Persian Gulf in the late eighties to protect U.S. flagged ships and Kuwaiti tankers, while the Soviet dolphin program remained in Ukrainian waters after the Union collapsed.

But for now, at least, we won’t be finding out whether the Ukrainian combat dolphins Russia has pressed into service will remain loyal to their new motherland and battle their American opponents in the Black Sea.