Russia celebrated the 300th anniversary of its naval forces in grand style over the weekend, but the festivities could only partially obscure the fading glory of the once formidable Soviet fleet and the uncertain future that confronts its Russian successor. That ambiguity was summed up best by Security Council secretary and retired general Aleksandr Lebed, who said that Russians felt pride in the fleet’s history but "bitterness and shame for the current decline, for the appearance and condition of the Navy now celebrating its great holiday." (Itar-Tass, July 28) Indeed, the navy’s problems are many and well-known. Sailors sometimes go months without pay and, according to Western estimates, sharp funding reductions have reduced the ranks of naval personnel from 480,000 ten years ago to 270,000 today. The number of vessels has also declined in roughly the same proportion, and ports are filled with the rusting hulks of ships that the navy can no longer maintain. (Reuter, July 26)
But during the festivities over the weekend in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok — each of which included a number of foreign vessels — Russian leaders vowed to resuscitate the fleet and to make it once again a symbol of Moscow’s great power status. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, standing in for a still ailing Boris Yeltsin, repeated an earlier pledge that the navy would henceforth be given priority funding from the state budget. "No one should doubt that Russia will have a fleet meeting the most modern demands — a powerful and complete fleet which is able to fulfill any task for the good of the fatherland," he proclaimed. (Reuter, July 28) And while Chernomyrdin’s words remain more boast than fact, Western experts have observed the appearance in recent years of modern ships that partially offset the losses of older vessels and that could ultimately form the backbone of a new "leaner" navy. Moscow appears, meanwhile, to have focused attention on its submarine fleet, and Western observers have been surprised by the appearance of improved, quieter Akula-class subs patrolling far from Russia’s shores. The new Severodvinsk class submarine is expected to begin entering service in the year 2000. (See Monitor, July 9)
Rodionov Backs Reform; Slams NATO.