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Russian Navy Is Adrift in an Ocean of Problems

Europe: Submarine disaster points up the service's funding crisis and the implications for its fleet.

August 27, 2000|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In May, a group of officers from Russia's Northern Fleet participated in an exercise that they hoped never would be needed: a submarine rescue operation.

An old, decommissioned submarine was sunk on an even keel, and Russia's rescue submersibles went to work. Four attempts to dock with the submarine failed, but the official report on the exercise said that it had been a success.

The rescue operation for the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk this month was more demanding. The submarine was resting on the seabed at an angle, and the weather was bad. Like the exercise, the real rescue failed.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Russians are searching for answers to why the accident happened and why the rescue failed. Was negligence, poor maintenance or funding cuts the cause of the catastrophe? Did 118 crew members die because Russia's rescue equipment and training were inadequate, despite the navy's insistence that its expertise was equal to that of the West?

The navy's poverty has implications far beyond Russia's borders: Starved of funds for a decade, it has dozens of nuclear reactors in its back pocket, each one a potential mini-Chernobyl.

With no evidence as to what caused the Kursk accident, it's too early to say whether the financial crisis in the navy since the collapse of the Soviet Union was a factor. But President Vladimir V. Putin and Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev are convinced that it was, as are officers with the Northern Fleet.

The Kursk debacle has focused Putin's attention on the economic wreckage of the navy and what kind of fleet it can afford to maintain. At a time when even officers' families are going hungry, Putin's goal of reviving Russia's naval might seems distant, at best.

After the disaster, Putin promised extra money for the military and announced a 20% pay increase for the armed forces and the creation of sea rescue centers. He said that Russia's submarine fleet might be cut from about 30 vessels to just 10 but that the crew of each would be properly supplied.

The navy's financial problems are dire.

The Baltic Fleet owed so much money to the Kaliningrad bread factory that the plant refused to supply any more bread last summer.

In one of the Northern Fleet's great indignities, one of its submarines was stripped of its missiles in 1995 and used to transport potatoes from the Kola Peninsula to Siberia.

Theft is common. On Jan. 13, four desperate sailors in Kamchatka, in eastern Russia, stole the radioactive fuel on their submarine to sell for some quick cash. They were caught and jailed.

Russian naval officers are paid $150 a month, and sailors receive $50 to $90--far less than the average Russian's monthly earnings of $350. Many of the navy's top people have left.

Size of Fleet Has Dropped in Decade

The navy's fleet has shrunk from its bloated numbers in the Soviet days. One thousand vessels were scrapped in the last decade because the navy's funding for maintenance and repairs was 10% of what it needed, according to a navy report published in December.

"There has been growing concern as to whether the navy's present decline has become irreversible," noted an analysis on the Russian navy in Jane's Sentinel, a security assessment journal. "Crews are increasingly losing their basic skills. Sea duty for submarines has been cut by a quarter since 1997, and for ships, by fully a third."

Russia's 11 Oscar-II class submarines have to rely on help from cities nationwide.

"The Kursk got its name because the city of Kursk was taking care of the submarine, supplying it with food, televisions, videos," said Igor Kudrik, an expert on the Russian navy from the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. "We are talking about the submarine, which is one of the most important vessels in the Russian navy. And a nonstate initiative is supporting it. It shows the state is unable to run the fleet."

To navy families, the shrinking of that branch of the military has only underscored how little clout the admirals had in the struggle for funding. Many naval vessels cannot put out to sea because they need repairs, and crews are often paid late.

"Our navy is very poor today," said Nadezhda Tylik, who lost her son Sergei, 24, on the Kursk. "The Russian navy has been destroyed by numerous reorganizations, all of which resulted in the shrinking of the force. The best people had to quit. The people who knew how to use the submarines and vessels, and who could teach their crews to find a way out of extreme situations, all left. I am amazed that submarines are still capable of leaving their ports at all."

Nikolai Konyashkin, 43, senior sublieutenant at the Kursk's base in Vidyayevo, near Murmansk, said an officer's life has become a "fight for survival. There's no gas in our town. There are no hot-water supplies, and we get paid $150 a month for handling nuclear weapons."

Vladimir Chaikin, also a senior sublieutenant at the Vidyayevo base, said officers' families sometimes go hungry.

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