Cold realities of Russia's Navy

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

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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.

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.

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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.

The Kursk disaster, in which 118 sailors died when the sub sank Aug. 12, cast the spotlight on navy weaknesses and poverty. Newspapers were full of pictures later that month of the Russian aircraft carrier Kiev, which was sold to China for scrap. And hair-raising stories have emerged of sailors stealing critical parts to sell.

"There is neither modernization nor rearming," says Grigory Pasko, a military journalist who spent 20 months in prison on treason charges for revealing the extent of Pacific Fleet polluting. "It is more profitable when a ship becomes old to make nails of it. The current slogan is 'Our fleet will return to the world ocean!' But this is only a slogan."

Already 183 Russian nuclear submarines have been decommissioned, though some 143 are attack subs that won't be dismantled under existing US-funding programs, says James Clay Moltz, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. The US Congress in August passed a law permitting possible expansion to include them, and Japan has contributed money as well. More than half of the subs still retain nuclear fuel, but have no crews and are "waiting for an accident to happen," says Mr. Moltz.

While hunting for cash, he says, Russia seems interested in a deal with India to lease nuclear submarines begun in Soviet times. One, nearly complete, is still in dry-dock, but recently was loaded with nuclear fuel.

President Putin has voiced strong support for the Navy, making a high-profile overnight stay on the sub Karelia in April. He also attended Admiral Kuroyedov's doctoral dissertation on naval strategy over the summer.

But defense chiefs are debating whether to spend on strategic nuclear-missile forces or advanced conventional ones. Reining in fleet ambitions to match the shrinking overall military budget has proven difficult, with Russia moving - almost by default - to its historical strength as a land power. "They could get by with a coastal defense force. They have enough nuclear weapons on missiles in the middle of the continent," says Handler, the US-based naval analyst. "But instead they persist in trying to have a superpower, let alone a first world, Navy."

For many Russians, though, such prestige is an article of faith. Fresh-faced sailors in thick black woolen coats still tour the S-56 submarine that sank 10 enemy ships during WWII. It sits beside the Pacific Fleet headquarters here. "I saw the Soviet Navy at its peak in the 1970s, when we controlled the oceans," recalls retired Maj.-Gen. Valeri Sofronov. "Back then, it was impossible to imagine the situation in the Navy as it is now." The new doctrine, he says, shows "people in government understand how bad the situation is.

"Knowing the Russian soul," General Sofronov adds. "I'm sure these dark times will finish, and we will rebuild our great military and Navy again."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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