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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 15:32 GMT
Russia's rusting navy
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News Online

Russian submarine, Novomoskovsk, which failed to fire missiles in February exercises
The Novomoskovsk, whose missiles stuck in its silos last month
The decline of Russia's armed services has been unmistakeable for more than a decade, but it is the crisis in the navy that has been most conspicuous of all.

The declaration from the navy commander-in-chief that the nuclear cruiser Peter the Great is too dangerous to be at sea is only the latest in a string of problems.

The sinking of the Kursk submarine during exercises in 2000, was Russia's worst peacetime military disaster, leading to the death of 118 sailors.

It was followed by the death of nine more men last year when another submarine, K-159, sank as it was being towed to a scrapyard.

The incident graphically illustrated the depth of the navy's problems - Russia is decommissioning warships so fast it does not have the resources to scrap them.

How can it be considered optimal if training is not conducted in many units, pilots hardly ever fly and sailors hardly ever put to sea
Vladimir Putin in 2000
The K-159, a model dating back to the 1950s, had been to left to rust for years before it was finally taken away to be dismantled.

Last year, yet another round of naval downsizing was announced - this after 1,000 warships were dumped in the 1990s.

The Russian navy's chief of staff, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, said a fifth of the fleet would be scrapped because the navy received just 12% of the budget it needed to keep the ships seaworthy.

Insufficient training

The Kursk disaster was initially blamed on a collision between the Kursk and a foreign submarine in the area, but a two-year investigation pinned the blame on a faulty torpedo.

Was it badly manufactured or badly maintained? Or were the sailors just poorly trained? The investigation did not make this clear.

All were lucky the ICBM did not explode on the sub
Military expert Pavel Felgengauer on a failed missile test in 2004
But Western analysts speculated from the first that the disaster could have been caused by mistakes in handling the liquid fuel the torpedoes use.

And President Putin himself underlined the need for better military training, in the wake of the tragedy.

"How can it be considered optimal if training is not conducted in many units, pilots hardly ever fly and sailors hardly ever put to sea?" he asked the Russian Security Council.

Uncomfortable memories of the Kursk disaster were stirred just last month, when Mr Putin himself put to sea to observe a pre-election naval exercise.

A nuclear submarine was to fire two liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but both got stuck in their silos.

The next day, a sister ship succeeded in firing a missile - but it exploded soon after take-off.

"All were lucky the ICBM did not explode on the sub," the military analyst Pavel Felgengauer wrote in his column in the Moscow Times.

Ambitions scaled back

It appears that poor maintenance and training could also be factors behind Admiral Kuroyedov's decision to confine the flagship of the northern fleet, the Peter the Great, to its base for two months.

Here again this Russian habit of relying on mere chance and hoping that everything will work just this time showed itself
Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov on the K-159 accident
He said he was particularly concerned about the state of the on-board nuclear reactor, and he ordered the crew to re-take a military training course before they go back to sea.

A final verdict has yet to be delivered on the K-159 incident, but one theory is that officers failed to follow proper safety procedures.

There have been accusations that the submarine should not have been being towed in rough weather, that it was towed too fast, and that there should not in fact have been any sailors on board the ancient vessel.

"Here again this Russian habit of relying on mere chance and hoping that everything will work just this time showed itself," Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted as saying.

As the navy has been hit in recent years by one problem after another, it has also scaled back its ambitions.

It now has only one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, launched in 1989.

The ship was being prepared in 2000 for its first deployment in the Mediterranean since 1997 - a gesture seen in Moscow as an important confirmation of Russia's status as a major world power - when the Kursk disaster struck and the trip was called off.

One Russian military analyst said recently that the Kuznetsov's only remaining purpose seemed to be training naval pilots.

Russia's focus is increasingly on protecting its own territorial waters than patrolling the world's oceans.

Plans for production of new warships are limited to modest frigates and corvettes.

And this year, Russia will finally give up its military base at Cam Ranh, Vietnam, leaving it with just one overseas logistical support base, at Tartus in Syria.


Over the last decade Russians have become accustomed to tales of woe emanating from the navy.

In one notorious incident in 1994, four conscripts in the Pacific Fleet died of a stomach infection linked to malnutrition.

In 1995 a nuclear submarine came close to meltdown when an electricity company cut supplies to a naval base in a dispute over unpaid bills, and the submarine's cooling system ceased to function.

And in 1998 a 19-year-old went on the rampage, murdering eight fellow sailors and threatening to blow up the submarine on which he was serving.

Theft also remains endemic.

Russian TV reported last year that warships and submarines of the northern fleet were being routinely robbed of vital components, including telecommunication circuit boards, air regeneration filters and even torpedoes.

It said naval officers were sometimes working together with criminal gangs which made millions of dollars smuggling the loot abroad.

Thieves plunder Russian Navy
10 Dec 03 |  Europe

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