While the first voyage of the nuclear-powered battle cruiser "Petr Veliky" was a short one, it was not lacking in controversy: the Latvian president said the ship’s presence in the waters off his country reinforced Latvia’s determination to join NATO, a Swedish fighter crashed while investigating the new warship, and some Latvian officials implied the Russians might have shot the plane down.
The Peter the Great was en route from its St. Petersburg shipyard to the naval base of Baltyisk in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. It had just been turned over to the Navy, capping a 10 year effort to complete the ship. The fourth and last of what was once called the "Kirov" class, the Peter the Great was named after Yuri Andropov when it was laid down in April, 1986. Work on the ship was halted following the breakup of the Soviet Union and was only resumed when local St. Petersburg authorities provided financial help. The powerful ship is heavily armed with both anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. After it completes sea trials it will join the Pacific Fleet.
On the evening of October 15 the battle cruiser and its two escorts anchored 23 nautical miles off the Latvian coast. The next day, as the 3 vessels sailed on toward Baltiysk, a Swedish reconnaissance jet that was trying to get a close look at the new warship clipped its wing in the sea and crashed, killing the pilot. At an October 17 press conference, Latvia’s armed forces commander, Juris Dalbins, intimated that the Russian ship had shot down the plane, a charge that a Russian naval spokesman called "blasphemous and provocative." (Interfax, October 17)
In a series of statements October 16-18, Latvia’s Foreign Ministry expressed its "serious concern" over the Russian side’s failure to notify Latvia of the warship’s passage and asked Moscow for explanations. Without disputing Moscow’s point that the warships actions had been consistent with international maritime law, Riga stressed that all countries follow the practice of prenotifying Latvia of the passage of their warships through its economic zone, and that this incident constituted the first exception to that practice since the 1991 restoration of Latvian independence. President Guntis Ulmanis stated on national television that the incident showed that "Russian policy is less than peaceable and friendly;" and that Latvia needs to strengthen its defense capability and join alliances dedicated to common defense, meaning NATO. (BNS, Russian agencies, October 16 through 19)
Baltic States Unqualified for NATO, Perry Quoted as Telling Moscow.