November 21, 2008
MOSCOW -- The voyage of the cruiser Peter the Great, scheduled to arrive in Venezuela next week with a squadron of other Russian warships, was meant to showcase the Kremlin's ability to project naval power abroad and reassert its claim to great power status.
But the arrival of the 24,000-ton nuclear-powered vessel and its escorts may mark the end of an era of rising ambitions for the Russian navy, not its beginning.
Russia's plans to conduct exercises in the Carribean for the first time since the Cold War were made before the global financial crisis mauled the country's energy-based economy. Plunging oil prices, some believe, could end Moscow's aspirations for a stronger presence in the Western Hemisphere.
The Peter the Great, a missile destroyer and two support vessels from Russia's Northern Fleet set off for Venezuela late September, in what was widely seen as a show of the Kremlin's anger over the U.S. dispatch of warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its August war with Russia. A pair of Russian strategic bombers visited Venezuela for a week in September. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent its planes and navy ships to Cuba.
The squadron's arrival next week is timed to coincide with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's planned trip to Venezuela and other Latin American nations. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an unbridled critic of the U.S. policy, said his nation needs a strong friendship with Russia to reduce U.S. influence and keep the peace in the region.
Some experts, though, question the military value of the exercise.
"The Kremlin is continuing its anti-American course in the nineteenth century style," said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst. "But it makes no sense militarily. A couple of ships struggling to make it to South America aren't going to strengthen Russia's posture against the United States."
Medvedev vowed in September that Russia will follow up on the Venezuelan cruise with other maneuvers worldwide. But its navy capability is limited.
"Russia simply lacks ships for the purpose," said Alexander Khramchikhin, a top analyst with Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis, an independent think-tank.
He and other analysts say that the Peter the Great and its destroyer escort, the Admiral Chabanenko, are among a few vessels in the Russian navy capable of long ocean cruises.
The construction of the Peter the Great began before the 1991 Soviet collapse but was completed a decade later. It was designed to destroy aircraft carriers with an array of supersonic cruise-missiles. It's the largest ship in the Russian fleet and the only surface vessel powered by a nuclear reactor, which gives it enormous range and autonomy.
The cruiser suffered a deadly accident in 1996 when a high-pressure steam line ruptured, killing four seamen. In 2004, the Russian navy chief abruptly declared the ship so decrepit it could explode any moment.
Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov quickly retracted his words, saying he was misquoted, and some media attributed the statement to a personal conflict with the cruiser's captain.
The Russian squadron has called at several Mediterranean ports as part of its current cruise, which the Navy said will cover 15,000 nautical miles - three times the distance between the Venezuelan shores and home base on the Arctic Kola Peninsula. After completing joint maneuvers with Venezuela, the ships will sail for the Indian Ocean for further exercises, the navy said.
Of all branches of the Russian military, the navy suffered most after the Soviet collapse. Sharp cuts in military spending left many Russian warships rusting berthside and forced the navy to scrap dozens of comparatively modern vessels.
Booming oil prices during President Vladimir Putin's eight-year tenure led to steady increases in military spending, allowing the navy to repair some vessels and train new crews. But the Russian navy is still a shadow of what it was in the Soviet era, when Moscow dispatched warships on regular patrols of the world's oceans.
"Most big surface warships which were built during the Soviet times have closely approached the end of their service time," Khramchikhin said. "It can't be extended indefinitely unless they want to see them sink in the middle of their cruise."
The Kursk nuclear submarine catastrophe, which killed all its 118 seamen in August 2000, and a steady string of other deadly accidents highlighted the poor state of the Russian navy.
Earlier this month, 20 people suffocated and 21 others were injured aboard a new nuclear-powered submarine when a firefighting system switched on by accident and pumped the sub full of Freon gas, displacing the vessel's oxygen. The mishap, which officials blame on a seaman's tinkering with the firefighting system's controls, occurred while the sub was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan.
"Badly-trained crews on poorly-maintained ships pose the danger of new catastrophes," said military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
Russia now has just one Soviet-built carrier, which is much smaller than any U.S. carrier and has been dogged by unreliable turbines and other technical problems. Experts say tumbling oil prices and the global financial slowdown have likely scuttled all plans for massive new military spending, including a plan to build new carriers, at least in the short term.
"Russia lacks money, industrial resources and qualified industry personnel for that," Khramchikhin said.