Russian Navy Is Adrift in an Ocean of Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

"There have been times when I came home after a tour of duty and saw that my family didn't have anything to eat," he said. "My wife and I have to sit down every month and write down on a piece of paper how we're going to spend each kopeck. And we're officers. We're supposed to be the elite of the military."

He complained that the navy's limited funds were often misspent, despite numerous reorganizations to trim the fat.

"There are still all sorts of freeloaders in the navy. You find these headquarters, command groups and all sorts of bureaucratic structures that devour a lot of money but produce zero result," he said. "As for combat officers who actually do the job, our opportunities are severely restricted."

Crews Often Assembled from Several Vessels

Russian submarine crews, while in port, are understaffed by about 20%, and when they take to sea, crew members are reassigned from other vessels to fill the gaps. Among the Kursk victims, at least 12 officers were from another vessel, the Voronezh.

"It's the wrong thing to keep throwing people from one submarine to another and then back. But there's simply no other choice," Chaikin said. "Obviously, the practice creates tensions in the crew because a submarine crew should be a close-knit collective of people who think and act in exactly the same way."

Bellona's Kudrik says one possible cause of the disaster was the use of a new, cheaper type of torpedo using liquid fuel.

According to an article in the official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on Aug. 17, the navy had opposed the new torpedoes because they were difficult to store and dangerous to handle.

Analysts say the navy's poverty compromised the rescue operation.

The first time a Russian submersible managed to approach the submarine hatch, it was ordered to pull away because it had old batteries that were about to expire after a couple of hours' work.

One revelation during the Kursk rescue effort was the fact that Russia had no deep-sea divers capable of helping. In the 1980s, Soviet divers were trained in France to reach depths of more than 300 feet, in order to work on the exploration of energy reserves in the Barents Sea.

One of the divers, Konstantin Argelade, said that high-tech diving equipment was bought overseas in the 1980s but that, in the early 1990s, it was dismantled and dispersed, and the divers lost the regular experience they needed to maintain their skills.

After the Kursk catastrophe, the navy faces a new problem: a collapse in morale not only among ordinary seamen but also among officers.

"I don't want to serve in a submarine anymore," Chaikin said. "But I'm not given the opportunity to get a transfer to the shore. It's becoming impossible for me to continue in the service because the conditions are so disgraceful. And I can't quit because I have a family to feed."

For Russia's top naval commanders, Putin had seemed to offer salvation. At last, here was a president who grasped the need to reassert Russia's naval might in order for the nation to reclaim its place as a real global power.

In January, navy commander Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov said Russia would retain and repair four nuclear-powered Kirov-class battle cruisers, including the Admiral Ushakov, which had been out of action for a decade. A public charity campaign was initiated to raise money for its repair.

In late July, Kuroyedov announced "World Ocean," a plan to rebuild the Russian navy over 15 to 20 years and provide a counterbalance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's naval power.

He also said the navy would return to its old Soviet playground in the Mediterranean--temporarily, at least. The plan was for a flotilla of vessels, including the navy's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Kirov-class battle cruiser Peter the Great, and the navy's newest destroyer, the Admiral Chabanenko, to steam triumphantly into the Mediterranean late this year in a brash display of Russia's naval might.

'Blue-Water' Strategy Meant to Send Signal

Analysts said the aim was to send NATO a signal of Russia's intention to maintain a "blue-water" offensive naval strategy, which involves patrolling farther from one's own shores in an attempt to keep perceived or potential enemies as far away as possible.

The report on Russia's navy in Jane's Sentinel noted "a pattern of increasing Russian naval activity that has seen attack submarines operate in the Cold War stamping grounds of the Mediterranean and Eastern Pacific, carrying out simulated attacks on U.S. naval forces."

"According to senior U.S. intelligence analysts, the Russian navy is operating in a manner very similar to that of the Soviet fleet during the Cold War. Crucially, however, Russian naval strength has seriously declined, with only 20 first-class attack submarines in operating condition," the report said.

Just after NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last year, the Northern Fleet readied the Kursk to go to the Mediterranean.

According to one Russian naval officer who served on the Kursk at the time, the vessel was in the Mediterranean from August to October. His name cannot be used because of the risk of serious repercussions against him.

The Kursk disaster has cast doubt on the navy's recent attempts to revive Russia as a global naval power.

"It's obvious that our presence in the Mediterranean Sea will never ever be what it was before. Certainly we can make a voyage, but it's only to show everyone that we are capable of doing it," said Vladimir Urban, a naval specialist at the AVN military news agency.

Putin's comments after the Kursk tragedy have cast doubt not only on the plans for the Mediterranean exercise but on whether a "blue-water" strategy is right for Russia, given the state of its economy.

Russia's Defense Ministry budget for 2000 is $4.5 billion, compared with about $268 billion for the United States.

In an interview Thursday on the RTR state television network, Putin said the only way that Russia's navy can get out of its humiliating position is for the military to shrink.

"Our armed forces should match our needs on one hand and the possibilities of the state on the other," he said, adding that the military must be "compact, modern and well paid."

"We have been talking about military reform for how long? At least eight years and perhaps a whole 10 years, but there has been little change in this area," he said.

But for the families who lost loved ones on the Kursk, it's more important to reform the Soviet mentality of the admirals.

Vice Adm. Yuri Kvyatkovsky, quoted in the Vlast journal two days after the Kursk sank, said the reason that crew members hadn't evacuated the sub was because they understood the need to preserve state secrets from foreign spies.

"The main thing to take care of is the preservation of state secrets. There are lots of different devices and communications systems on the submarine which can be considered state secrets," he said. "It's crucial not to lose the submarine."

Later, when the entire crew was lost and officials were in desperate damage-control mode, Defense Minister Sergeyev took full responsibility--while insisting that the military made no fundamental errors in the failed rescue effort.

"The old mentality is pretty much alive," said Tylik, the grieving mother. "Our government finds it easier to keep its mouth shut, to hush up the problems rather than to do something about them."

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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