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Russia: Nuclear Warship Docked After Navy Chief Voices Safety Concerns

One of Russia's leading warships, the nuclear-powered "Peter the Great" missile cruiser, has been temporarily docked following critical remarks by the Russian navy chief regarding the ship's maintenance. Vladimir Kuroyedov said the cruiser was in such poor condition that the possibility of a nuclear accident could not be ruled out. He later retracted the statement, prompting some observers to speculate his comments were motivated more by politics than safety concerns.

Prague, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov initially claimed in an interview that the condition of Russia's Northern Fleet flagship was especially threatening because of its nuclear reactor.

"The ship's condition is fine in those places where admirals walk; but where they don't go, everything is in such a state that it could explode at any moment."
He made his remarks after observing the cruiser in Barents Sea military exercises last week (17 March). Interfax news agency quoted him as saying, "The ship's condition is fine in those places where admirals walk; but where they don't go, everything is in such a state that it could explode at any moment."

Kuroyedov specifically cited the "upkeep" of the nuclear reactor, and ordered the ship to be docked for two weeks for emergency maintenance. The fleet's main port is in Murmansk.

He later softened his words, saying the ship's nuclear facilities receive satisfactory care. But he implied that other parts of the showcase cruiser were in disrepair. He referred to burned-out bulbs and fire extinguishers that had not been properly tested.

Kuroyedov's words took some by surprise. The "Peter the Great" was recently named the best ship in the fleet.

Viktor Baranets is a military analyst with the Russian national newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda." He has visited the "Peter the Great" and says the ship is well-equipped and battle-ready.

"Sailors have long called this ship a 'shop window,' because in the past few years there has not been a single Russian president, top commander, or defense minister who has not visited this ship. Their reactions [have all been] positive. The ship has been awarded a number of prizes by the Navy chief command and has been named best ship many times," Baranets said.

Baranets says the cruiser is so prestigious that the Navy exercised particular care in selecting a captain. Rear Admiral Vladimir Kasatonov, who now commands the flagship, comes from a family with longstanding navy ties.

Some analysts say that Kuroyedov's decision to put the warship in port stemmed from his personal conflict with the captain's uncle, retired Admiral Igor Kasatonov.

The former first deputy of the Navy chief commander last month gave testimony in military court hearings on the K-159 submarine disaster. The decommissioned sub sank in a storm on its way to the scrapyard. Nine of its 10 crew members were killed.

The tragedy led to Gennadii Suchkov, the commander of the Northern Fleet, being suspended from his post. But Baranets says Kasatonov's testimony indicated that Kuroyedov may have been to blame for the incident as well.

"At the secret hearings Admiral Igor Kasatonov made several conclusions that were undermining to the authority of Navy Chief Kuroyedov. The essence of Admiral Igor Kasatonov's statements was that Navy Chief Kuroyedov had tried to shift the responsibility for the tragedy on former North Fleet Commander Admiral Suchkov," Baranets said.

Kuroyedov was also criticized in Russia over his role in the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in August 2000 and other failures, including recent misfires of strategic nuclear missiles from submerged submarines.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, says that Kuroyedov has often found himself at the center of public scandals for apparent attempts to skew the facts about the Kursk disaster and other incidents.

“Chief Commander Kuroyedov is constantly telling untruths in public,” Felgenhauer said. “It happened in regards with the Kursk and more recently as well. So, he says things that are contrary to fact. And he also has conflicts with his subordinates. At the same time, he evidently wants to become either the minister of defense or chairman of the [Russian Armed Forces] General Staff. So, he has grand ambitions. And, to my mind, he is not smart and is unprofessional."

Felgenhauer, however, says that Kuroyedov was correct in pointing to the deficiencies in the "Peter the Great's" condition. He says inadequate resources are contributing to a generally poor state of the Russian Navy.

"The condition of [Russian] warships, especially big ones, is generally quite deplorable,” he said. “Technical problems happen constantly. The ships were built unreliably. Besides, they are maintained and served irregularly. And their crews are trained inadequately -- and not only ordinary sailors, but officers as well. So, we have unreliable warships, unreliable crews and unreliable admirals. As a result, accidents happen constantly and sometimes there are even catastrophes."

Denis Trifonov, a Russia and CIS analyst at Jane's Information Group in London, says Kuroyedov's decision to ground the flagship was motivated by political rather than safety concerns.

"Kuroyedov is believed to be an advocate of nuclear submarine development. Over the past two years, he has repeatedly called for building new nuclear submarines and strengthening this component of the navy. On the other hand, it is believed that there is a lobby within the Navy command that believes that surface-ship types should be developed, especially missile cruisers and aircraft carriers. According to the estimates, [the 'Peter the Great'] was not in a critical state. The majority of experts were surprised, to say the least, by Kuroyedov's statements," Trifonov said.

Trifonov notes that Kuroyedov's critical remarks regarding the cruiser follow a recent string of unsuccessful submarine missile launches, and may be an attempt to deflect attention from those failures and cast surface ships in a negative light.

"Kuroyedov lately has made a number of very unbalanced statements on many issues. I believe that his major interest was to draw the attention of the leadership and the public to the poor status of the navy. And I think that there is a lobbying effort involved. [Kuroyedov suggests that] the navy does have problems, but they can be solved by increasing financing and introducing the new programs which are now being very aggressively proposed by Kuroyedov and his surrounding," Trifonov said.

The lack of funding has forced the Russian navy to cut a number of its programs, including training and military exercises. It has also cut back on missions and suspended the operations of dozens of warships.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)