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Wednesday, March 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:05 A.M.

Top Russian vessel ordered back to port

By Mark McDonald
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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MOSCOW — In another blow to Russia's beleaguered military, the navy's commanding admiral ordered a nuclear-powered battle cruiser to return to port yesterday for fear that "it could explode at any moment."

Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov said the Peter the Great, flagship of the Northern Fleet, had become unseaworthy and dangerous. During a recent inspection he found the cruiser to be poorly maintained, including "the contents of the (on-board) nuclear reactor."

He told the news agency Interfax that the only parts on the boat that passed muster were "the areas where visiting admirals walk around."

Three hours later, he took it all back, claiming Russian reporters had misunderstood him.

"There is no threat whatsoever to the ship's nuclear safety," he said in a statement. "The ship's nuclear safety is fully guaranteed in line with existing norms."

Some flaws in maintaining the cruiser's living quarters would be fixed within three weeks, he said, after which the ship would become fully combat-ready. But the salvo of contradictory statements was disturbing in a country with one of the world's largest nuclear fleets.

Military analysts in Moscow said Kuroyedov's unexpected docking of the cruiser could be part of a personal feud with the ship's commander, Vladimir Kasatonov. The two officers are said not to like each other.

The Peter the Great is worthy of the adjective: It displaces 28,000 tons, stretches the length of three football fields and carries a crew of 610. It reportedly can carry 20 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

But the ship has had a troubled history. During testing in 1996, an explosion in a steam pipeline killed five sailors. The vessel finally was commissioned in March 1998 — 12 years after construction started — but by that June it was back in port for more repairs.
 
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Experts said while there could be some problems with maintaining the cruiser, its nuclear reactors were surely safe.

"Nuclear reactors have in-built safety systems," said Retired Vice Adm. Yevgeny Chernov, a Northern Fleet veteran. "It's ridiculous to even talk about an explosion."

The Russian military has been in steep decline since the Soviet Union broke up a dozen years ago. President Vladimir Putin has made military reform and modernization a priority, although little has improved in the past four years.

Army troops remain poorly paid and provisioned, and morale is abysmal. Air Force pilots get only a fraction of the necessary flight training because of a shortage of jet fuel and spare parts.

The rust on the navy has been particularly dramatic. The lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuzentsov, is undergoing a four-year-long overhaul. Most of the ships in the Baltic fleet have been sold off or cut into scrap metal. Last winter, the fleet was so far behind in paying its utility bills that its electricity was cut off.

Andrei Nikolayev, a retired general and the former head of the Parliament's defense committee, said recently that only one-fourth of Russia's surface warships were seaworthy.

Putin was embarrassed last month when he attended the launch of two ballistic missiles from a Northern Fleet submarine. The missiles malfunctioned and never got out of their tubes.

The biggest disaster to hit the Northern Fleet came in August 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. The entire crew of 118 was lost.

The Northern Fleet lost nine men last August when the K-159 nuclear submarine broke apart while it was being towed to a scrap yard.

Additional background from The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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