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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aging Navy Packs Deadly Punch

ReutersA sailor standing in front of the missile cruiser Moskva in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in September.
ABOARD THE MOSKVA MISSILE CRUISER — This Russian warship left the shipyard 25 years ago, and it shows: The electronics consoles look like museum exhibits, and its hull carries a thick crust of paint from years of running repairs.

Its shortcomings reflect the Russian Navy's many problems, highlighted again this month by an accident on a nuclear submarine that killed 20 people.

But looks can deceive. Hidden beneath the decks of the Moskva cruiser are 16 "Bazalt" guided missiles, which travel faster than the speed of sound and can strike an enemy aircraft carrier group 500 kilometers away.

The Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, symbolizes Russia's Navy: All too easy to dismiss as an aging rust-bucket, it can still pack a formidable punch.

The Navy's capability matters now more than at any time since the Cold War because the Kremlin is using it to project Russia's newfound confidence far beyond its coastal waters, bringing it face to face with NATO warships.

"I believe we are treated with respect," Igor Smolyak, captain of the Moskva, told a group of visiting journalists when asked what foreign navies made of his vessel. He was standing in front of a 130 mm cannon at the bow of his ship.

"They treat with respect the flag, the ship and — accordingly — our nation," he said during the visit in late September.

When Russia this year sent its nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great to Venezuela — the first such maneuvers off the U.S. coast since the Cold War — Washington poked fun.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack quipped that it was "very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela."

The jokes are not entirely baseless. For years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, funding for the Navy all but dried up. Building new vessels was put on hold, and the existing fleet had to languish in port because of a lack of fuel.

"We have lost 15 years," Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said at the Moskva's mooring in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, home port of the Black Sea Fleet.

"Warships are not tanks. They are far more sophisticated and need proper care," he said.

But military analysts say what counts with naval power is not the age of the ship but what is inside it.

In the case of the Moskva — originally called "Slava," or "Glory," when it was launched in 1983 — its officers say its electronics, sensors and weapons have been constantly upgraded.

One of only three missile cruisers of this class in the Navy, it bristles with weapons, including anti-submarine bombs, anti-aircraft rockets, six-barreled Gatling guns, torpedoes and an on-deck helicopter.

Nick Brown, editor-in-chief of Jane's International Defense Review, said the age of the Russian fleet did not necessarily mean that it could not fight.

"It's all about how it's been maintained," he said in written comments. "The U.S. Navy's oldest Ticonderoga-class cruisers were launched in the early 1980s, and they have plenty of life left."

"I'm not sure that you can say the same about the Black Sea Fleet, because maintenance and upgrade programs have been somewhat haphazard. That's not to say that the fleet is obsolete by any stretch. It's still a powerful fighting force."

According to official data, Russia's Black Sea Fleet now comprises about 50 warships and other vessels, up to 80 planes and helicopters and some 13,000 servicemen.

More, and newer, ships are promised as Russia spends some of the huge cash pile it has built up from years of high oil prices on beefing up its military.

The officers of the Black Sea Fleet know that they have to be battle-ready because their adversary is getting closer.

In August, the Moskva was put to sea to track NATO vessels dispatched in the aftermath of Russia's war with Georgia. NATO said it was delivering aid to Georgia, but Moscow saw the alliance as encroaching on its sphere of influence.

Even in the home port that Ukraine's government — which wants to join NATO — grudgingly rents to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Western military power is hard to ignore.

As the Moskva sat at its moorings in Sevastopol, the U.S. Navy survey ship Pathfinder, invited to visit by the Ukrainian military, steamed past and headed out to sea.