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Russia: Black Sea Fleet Under Siege Again

Moscow, 18 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Black Sea fleet is under siege again. This time there are no German troops advancing to seize the fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol as they did during the Second World War. Instead, it's the municipal authorities of that Black Sea port that are besieging the fleet's warships and ground facilities with bills for supplies of electricity, gas and water.

The fleet's commander, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, has grown so desperate that he is "seriously" considering the possibility of activating ancient mobile stoves to feed his sailors, according to his spokesman Andrei Krylov.

Krylov said the stoves, which have been rusting at the fleet's storage facilities since the end of the Second World War, may soon become the only option for Black Sea fleet sailors seeking to have hot meals.

The Russian defense ministry and its units, poorly funded by the federal government, have invariably failed in recent years to pay their suppliers, including utility companies, in time. Krylov said the fleet's units, including docked warships, daily see their electricity supplies cut off for up to two hours every day.

The warships compensate for these power blackouts by turning on their diesel generators, but some of them have started running out of fuel. All of the ships have their cooking facilities powered by electricity. Krylov said that as a result, when the last drop of fuel gets burnt, sailors will have no choice but to turn to the mobile ovens that consume coal and wood.

Admiral Komoyedov has issued no formal order to bring the ovens out of the fleet's warehouses. But Krylov said this could happen in the next month or so if Sevastopol authorities do not stop cutting off electricity. The same ovens could also help keep servicemen warm during the pending winter if the fleet's command fails to negotiate delivery of fuel to its heating facilities.

Moscow and Kyiv have agreed that Ukrainian grid companies will supply electricity to the Black Sea fleet in lieu of payment of part of Ukraine's debt to Russia. Russia annually supplies millions of dollars worth of gas to Ukraine and Kyiv regularly fails to pay for these supplies.

But the collapse of the Russian ruble has prompted the Ukrainian side to limit electricity supply and to call for a new debt-settlement scheme, which Moscow has so far refused to accept.

In their turn Sevastopol city officials have sent a letter to the Black Sea command demanding cash payment of more than $3 million for past supplies of electricity, gas and water. Krylov said the fleet has not and "will hardly have" any cash to pay this bill.

Unfortunately, water and electricity shortages are nothing new, not only to Black Sea servicemen, but to residents of Sevastopol too. For instance, water supplies have been limited to two hours a day since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sent Moscow and Kyiv arguing over the status of the Black Sea fleet and Sevastopol.

And neither do the fleet's officers, residing in the city, have much cash to pay their own private utility bills. All of the officers received their June salaries only in October, with most of various additional allowances left unpaid for more than a year.

The situation is especially gloomy at the fleet's unit overseeing warship repairs at Nikolayev. The unit, which still lists several dozen servicemen, seems to be all but abandoned. This unit has not only had its water and electricity supplies repeatedly shut off by Ukrainian utility companies due to the unit's chronic failure to pay bills. The Nikolayev tax authority has also seized the unit's bank accounts.

However, this drastic measure will not help the city authorities expedite collections of debts from the unit, as it is soon to be disbanded, the unit's duty officer told RFE/RL by phone.

Cash shortages have also delayed completion of repairs on the fleet's Moskva missile cruiser, overseen by this unit. This cruiser was initially scheduled to leave the Nikolayev docks in September, but its departure had to be delayed. The Moskva is now scheduled to return to the fleet's main base at Sevastopol by December 31, but only if its repairs run on schedule and are fully funded -- which they are not.

Two other Black Sea Fleet warships -- the Tashkent and Nikolayev -- have already been sold off for scrap after the fleet failed to pay for their repairs at the Nikolayev docks.

(Second of two features on problems facing the Russian military.)