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Cold realities of Russia's Navy

While top brass plan to restore superpower status, others worry about hazards of decaying nuclear fleet.

By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2001


For Russia's Navy, the gap between hope and reality couldn't be wider in Vladivostok. Abandoned, half-sunken submarines crowd one of the city's bays, locked like beached Leviathans in the ice of the coldest winter in 50 years.

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Near one of the jutting relics, Viktor Kuzyanov, a former submariner, ice-fishes from a seat atop an upside-down enamel bucket. "We were the most powerful Navy in the world, and now there is nothing left," he laments.

Russia's top Navy brass is developing a new naval doctrine that calls for transforming the country back into a strategic force on the high seas. But few specifics are known. After a decade of chronic underfunding, a shrinking fleet, low morale, and the dangerous decay of its nuclear-powered submarine force, skepticism runs deep in the West, and in Russia itself.

Three Russian warships set out Jan. 15 toward India, in one of the longest naval deployments since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two-month mission "will demonstrate Russia's ability to proudly display its naval flag, [and] guarantee its national interests in the oceans," said a statement from the Pacific Fleet, based in this remote Far East port city.

"I believe that this new century will see us leaving the docks and heading for the ocean," said Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the Navy's chief commander and a primary author of the doctrine, in remarks published in Moscow's Russia Journal.

But dreams of reestablishing Russia's superpower Navy, analysts say, are a mixture of theater and illusion in a nation where impoverished sailors have taken to growing their own food, begging sponsorship from also-poor cities, and theft. "Obviously, to show its worth under [President Vladimir] Putin, the fleet feels the need to fly the flag," says Joshua Handler, a naval analyst at Princeton University in New Jersey. But the result is a "classic Potemkin village," in which a facade that all is well means that "none of the serious issues are being addressed.

"The nuclear-submarine force is down to its last very thin mooring line," Mr. Handler says. "It's up against basic mathematics. The problem is they are trying to run a first-world fleet on a third-world economic base.... The Navy is walking on the edge of disaster here."

For Mr. Kuzyanov, the ice fisherman, "the collapse of the Navy is a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet Union and all Russia." A red thermos of tea keeps the biting chill at bay while he twiddles his line, hoping for a catch. "It's very sad. It burdens my heart."

It also burdens Western analysts and environmentalists, who worry about Russia's lack of money to deal with the risks presented by the aging and decommissioning of Navy ships - much less new hardware. Training and maintenance have been hardest hit, and Russian fleets have a history of dumping nuclear waste at sea, especially in fragile Arctic waters. The United States has spent $5 billion to safeguard nuclear material throughout the former Soviet Union - including a program to fund the safe dismantling of some 41 nuclear subs.