SCMP Tuesday, August 22, 2000

RUSSIA

Sub's fate sealed by rusting fleet

ASSOCIATED PRESS in Murmansk


The Russian navy's efforts to save the crew of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk were hampered from the start because its own deep-sea divers had been pensioned off and some of its best rescue vessels sat disabled in dock.

Some ships were paralysed for lack of parts costing a few hundred dollars while the poorly-paid crew of vessels still serviceable pay for equipment out of their own pockets.

The shocking state of these rescue units underlines the disrepair afflicting the country's once-powerful fleet.

Government financing of the armed forces has dwindled since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian navy has been plagued by theft, ageing equipment it cannot afford to repair, and rusting ships it is unable to replace. The severe funding shortage has weakened the navy to the point that it is unable to combat poachers in Russian waters. Some 1,000 ships have been decommissioned over the past 10 years.

One Russian navy commander, Rear Admiral Nikolai Konorev, said recently that if the funding shortages continued, the navy could go out of existence by 2015.

Around the Northern Fleet headquarters in the Arctic port of Murmansk, the coastline has turned into a giant maritime junkyard. The military bars visitors from the naval facilities and ship junkyard, but the mounds of rusting metal can be seen from boats that cross Kola Bay. Sand and silt have partly buried some of the ships over the years. Residents rummage among the wreckage, ripping off pieces of metal that can be sold for scrap.

Even the ships still in service often cannot leave port. Navy officials say that 70 per cent of their vessels need major repairs.

The navy's emergency rescue service has been working for private firms to earn money to repair its ships, toiling at oil terminals of Russia's Lukoil giant, said the chief of the Northern Fleet staff, Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak. "We earn money wherever we can," he said.

Some underpaid navy officers are turning to selling off equipment, further aggravating the fleet's condition. Last year, a nuclear submarine was disabled after thieves pilfered vital equipment. In February, a submarine was looted of radioactive fuel. Four sailors and a retired officer were arrested.

The disrepair of the vessels hit home when the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea 10 days ago with 118 sailors aboard. Two of the Northern Fleet's most lauded rescue vessels - the Titov and the Pamir - were unable to help. "The Titov has been out of commission for a long time as it is undergoing repairs," Vice-Admiral Motsak said. The Pamir was recently upgraded, but money was too short to make it seaworthy.

Rescuers at the Northern Fleet's Emergency Rescue Department say they pool their own money to buy instruments when they receive their monthly pay of 15,000 roubles (HK$4,200). Scores of rescue vessels are stranded at bases, some with only minor breakdowns. "I left out of despair," said a former rescue officer. "I had a ship sitting in a repair wharf for eight months because they couldn't find 25,000 roubles."

A lack of funds also led the Government to disband Murmansk's deep-sea divers' service in 1995 - a unit that some say might have been able to rescue at least some of the Kursk crew. According to some Russian media reports, the funding shortage has been so acute that the Kursk apparently lacked reserve batteries to generate power in case of emergency.

The navy has refused to answer specific questions relating to the submarine's condition.