AFP, MOSCOW: The anguished state of Russia's navy came under the spotlight for the second time in a month Tuesday after its chief ordered a nuclear cruiser back to port because its condition was so deplorable that “it could explode at any moment.”
The startling remarks from Russia's Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov appeared to catch both senior Russian and Western officials off guard.
The cruiser, Peter the Great, is one of Russia's most modern warships. It coordinates operations in the northern seas and has been called a flagship that oversaw the failed efforts to save the 118 seamen who perished in the August 2000 Kursk nuclear submarine disaster.
But reports said its flag-mast was lowered in disgrace as the cruiser came into port. Kuroyedov told the RIA-Novosti news agency that the nuclear reactor was safe.
There was no immediate reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kuroyedov's statement while Western officials watched the news develop with caution and refused to make any public statements.
NTV television quoted Kuroyedov as saying that all missiles — which could be tipped with nuclear weapons during war games — were being urgently taken off the cruiser as a precaution.
Kuroyedov said he had ordered the Barents Sea ship to be docked for two weeks “during which the ship's commander … must remove all deficiencies in the ship's upkeep.”
“The ship is in such a state that it could explode at any moment,” the Interfax news agency quoted Kuroyedov as saying.
Kuroyedov said he ordered the measure after a tour of the ship Wednesday during naval exercises in the Barents Sea.
“The ship's condition is fine in those places where admirals walk, but where they don't go everything is in such a state that it could explode at any moment. This includes the upkeep of the nuclear reactor,” Kuroyedov said.
“Such attitudes of commanders toward their ships leads to a degradation of the fleet,” he said.
Kuroyedov did not specify to which port the cruiser was taken and Western officials seemed at a loss.
“Do you have any information about this,” one US official in Moscow said after being asked for comment. “What is the latest?”
But some Russian media speculated that the actual state of the warship was not as urgent as initial media reports made it seem.
Some Russian media speculated Tuesday that Kuroyedov made his comments because of a personal dispute between the navy's top commanders that did not actually reflect the state of the massive warship.
The Kommersant business daily said the ship's commander is an uncle of a man who recently testified in a court case against Kuroyedov for his role in the failed rescue of another Russian nuclear submarine.
Peter the Great's call back to port came only weeks after the very same ship oversaw what were billed as Russia's biggest military war games in 20 years — exercises which saw two intercontinental ballistic missiles fail in a test launch.
Putin had billed the navy as the future of Russia's self-defenses — particularly the submarines' massive arsenal of nuclear missiles — and the tests' failed launch embarrassed the Kremlin just days ahead of the Russian leader's reelection.
Those two failed tests were successfully performed last week — but they came after Putin's March 14 reelection and seemed to only underline the growing deficiencies of the former Soviet-era superpower's military.