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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Fleet of Disposable Ships

Last week the commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, made waves worldwide when he told journalists that the nuclear-powered flagship of the Northern Fleet, the Pyotr Veliky, was in such bad shape that it could explode "at any moment." Kuroyedov added that the ship's two nuclear reactors were at risk.

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Kuroyedov announced that after personally inspecting the Pyotr Veliky he had ordered the ship docked for three weeks for repairs. The ship's crew took a 30 percent pay cut and the ship was removed from the list of Russia's "battle-ready" warships, the admiral said.

In Russia, the news aroused only limited interest. Too many nuclear submarines, important public buildings, schools and the like have sunk, burned or exploded in recent years, often with catastrophic loss of life.

In Russian, such disasters are referred to as "technogenic catastrophes," a politically correct phrase that most often masks the real cause: negligence, mismanagement, greed or corruption. Such catastrophes are so frequent these days that even when the head of the Navy says that a 19,000-ton warship could blow up at any moment, the public is not overly concerned. If the ship were to explode, we would probably be horrified. But the mere possibility of disaster is not enough to create panic.

If the German or Swedish brass, for example, were to inspect most any Russian warship or submarine, they would almost surely find that it didn't pass muster. The current Russian Navy was built up in a great rush in the 1970s and 1980s to take on NATO and the United States in an all-out nuclear war. The notion was that all of our surface ships would be knocked out within 15 minutes to one hour of the start of hostilities.

Our warships were therefore built to be used once. Their decks were covered with enormous tubes housing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, but no adequate reloading facilities were built in since reloading wasn't regarded as a feasible option. A mighty fleet was built for a single task: to fire a single volley and sink to the bottom as heroes.

The Third World War never happened, however, and now we are stuck with a huge inventory of low-quality warships that are supposed to serve the needs of a peacetime Navy. Onshore naval infrastructure is inadequate and maintenance is often nonexistent. Ships' crews are poorly trained -- not just the conscripts, but the officers as well.

Rather than receiving professional training, most sailors merely struggle to survive in hostile conditions. After more than a decade of utter neglect, many of the officers who remain on active duty are simply those who can't get a better job anywhere else or who are marking time until they finally get a free apartment from the government.

The Pyotr Veliky, by all accounts, is a cut above the average. Navy insiders reckon that Kuroyedov singled out the Northern Fleet flagship to settle a score with retired Admiral Igor Kasatonov, whose nephew Vladimir Kasatonov just happens to be the ship's commander.

Beyond Russia few realized that Kuroyedov was exaggerating the hazard posed by the Pyotr Veliky. In the West, when the head of the Navy announces that his largest warship could explode, this usually signals immediate danger. Britain and Scandinavia were particularly upset, probably bracing themselves for a sky full of nuclear fallout.

When Kuroyedov realized what a commotion he had created, he began to back off his original statement. The Navy announced that the admiral's remarks were off the record, that the ship's reactors were in good shape and that the only mess on the Pyotr Veliky was in the sailors' living quarters. Kuroyedov told journalists of the explosion threat in a restroom at the Defense Ministry that doubles as a smoking lounge during high-level meetings. He apparently did not realize the impact his words would have.

Kuroyedov has been caught telling tales to the press in the past. After the Kursk sank in 2000, the admiral told reporters that the Navy had proof that a U.S. submarine had sunk the vessel. In the end it was established that Russian negligence, not a U.S. submarine, had sunk the Kursk.

In 2001 a number of admirals were fired because of the Kursk disaster, but not Kuroyedov. President Vladimir Putin seems to have a soft spot for the admiral and chooses not to call him to account for his public misstatements.

This is one of the biggest problems in Putin's Russia. As long as an official is loyal to the president, he can lie and steal without fear of retribution.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.