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Russian admiral reverses course on critical report

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

MOSCOW -- Russia's naval chief alarmed his country on Tuesday by saying that one of the country's most advanced warships, the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, was so decrepit it could "explode any moment." Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov hastily took back his comments claiming Russian reporters had misunderstood him, but the salvo of contradictory statements was disturbing in a country with one of the world's largest nuclear fleets. Some reports attributed the flap to infighting among the navy leadership and said it signaled a dangerous weakness that could undermine trust in the naval command.

Kuroyedov gave his comments to Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies in a smoking room on his way to a meeting of top military officials.

First, he said the massive cruiser, the flagship of the Northern Fleet, had been badly maintained and could "explode any moment."

"Everything is all right on the ship where admirals walk, but in the areas where they don't, everything is in such condition that it may blow up at any moment," Kuroyedov was quoted as saying. "I mean, in particular, the maintenance of the nuclear reactor."

At the same time, he said he had ordered the captain to fix the ship within two weeks -- a deadline that seemed to contradict the urgency of his warning.

Three hours later, he took it all back.

"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.

Commissioned in 1998, Peter the Great is one of the Russian navy's biggest and most modern ships. Experts said while there could be some problems with maintaining the expensive cruiser, its nuclear reactors were surely safe.

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

Retired Capt. Igor Kurdin, the head of St. Petersburg's Submariners Club, said that Kuroyedov's statement was an "exaggeration ... people of such rank should be very careful."

Kuroyedov's suggestion the ship was unfit for service could have stemmed from his personal feud with the uncle of the ship's captain, or from his role in the sinking of a decommissioned nuclear submarine last year, the business newspaper Kommersant said.

Nine of 10 crewmen aboard the K-159 sub died when it sank in a howling storm on its way to a scrapyard -- a disaster that deeply embarrassed the navy.

Kuroyedov also faced harsh criticism for his role in the August 2000 explosion of the Kursk nuclear submarine, in which 118 sailors died. Many expected Putin to fire Kuroyedov after that.

In the latest blow to Russian military prestige, the navy failed to perform missile launches from nuclear submarines during last month's ambitious maneuvers -- personally overseen by Putin.

Kuroyedov, who watched the maneuvers from the Peter the Great, claimed that the first of two scheduled launches had never been planned despite numerous announcements to the contrary. On Tuesday, he said the second failed launch of a RSM-54 missile was due to its age.

"The missile was manufactured in 1987 and had a designated lifetime of 7 1/2 years," Kuroyedov said, adding that the navy now considers its RSM-54 missiles only 95 percent reliable.

The post-Soviet funding squeeze has badly hurt the navy, prompting it to mothball a large number of ships and keep most others docked for years because of shortages of fuel and spare parts.

"The ships are in terrible condition with pipes leaking and metal rusting," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst. "And the navy is led by unprofessional commanders."


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