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Russian Nuclear-Powered Cruiser Sets Sail to Bolster Venezuela's Chavez

The Voyage of the SS Peter the Great

by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

On Monday, a squadron from the Russian Navy’s North Sea Fleet sailed for Venezuela in an effort to bolster military links with Latin America.  In November, the convoy will take part in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy.  The Russian fleet includes the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great.  First laid down in St. Petersburg in April, 1986 the Russian cruiser was launched three years later and named the Yuri Andropov. When the Soviet Union broke up, the ship was renamed Peter the Great and was commissioned in 1995. The cruiser forms part of the Russian Navy’s so-called “Kirov Class” designed to engage large surface ships and defend the fleet against air and submarine attack.

An imposing ship, Peter the Great is a full six decks tall, measures almost 900 feet in length and weighs 28,000 tons. The ship accommodates 610 sailors including 82 officers. Peter the Great is armed with a massive amount of missiles, guns, torpedoes, antisubmarine mortars and electronic countermeasures. The ship’s artillery system is based on a computer-based control system with a multi-band radar, television and optical target sighting. The ship has three helicopters.

Peter the Great’s propulsion system is based on a combination of nuclear power and steam turbine with four nuclear reactors and two auxiliary boilers. In Kursk Down! , Clyde Burleson writes, “The first nuclear Russian surface warship, Peter the Great utilizes an odd auxiliary oil-fueled system to superheat steam from the reactors to produce added propulsion. In an emergency reactor shutdown, the vessel could continue to maneuver, using this secondary, nonatomic power resource.”

Despite its daunting profile, Peter the Great has been plagued with technical problems from the outset. The Bellona Foundation, an environmental organization based in Oslo, Norway monitors the Russian Navy and has long been concerned with the nuclear-powered cruiser. According to the group, Peter the Great experienced a horrible accident in October 1996. While cruising in the Baltic Sea an explosion in a turbine pipe outside the ship’s reactor killed five sailors. It was hardly an auspicious beginning for Peter the Great.

According to Bellona, the ship’s 1960s reactor technology was outdated and “a number of defects” had been detected. In March 2004, The Guardian of London reported that Admiral Vladimir Kuyoyedov, the head of the Russian navy, announced that Peter the Great would be withdrawn from service because of fears that the ship “could explode at any moment.” Kuroyedov told Russian news agencies: “The ship is in such poor condition that it could explode at any moment. The situation is especially dangerous because the ship is powered by a nuclear power plant.” It was unclear whether the admiral was suggesting that there could be a nuclear explosion.

Kuroyedov’s open admission of military incompetence aroused acute embarrassment within government circles. “To acknowledge that the flagship of the fleet is incapable of carrying out combat duties is a scandal,” said the official Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper. Some analysts dismissed the admiral’s comments as “overly dramatic,” interpreting them as a possible bid for more government funding. Whatever the case, a great cloud of doubt hangs over Peter the Great and the Russian navy to this day.  Despite its long history of problems however, the cruiser has an enormous amount of firepower at its disposal.

Peter the Great will be patrolling Caribbean waters at the same time that the United States has decided to revive its Fourth Fleet (for more on the history of the Fourth Fleet, see my earlier article “World War II To The Present: U.S. Fourth Fleet in Venezuelan Waters,” May 24/25, 2008).  Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel has said the military cooperation with Russia would prepare Venezuela to confront possible US “threats,” such as the reactivation of the U.S. Fourth Fleet.  A resurgent Russia, stung by U.S. political and diplomatic support for the Republic of Georgia, is happy to oblige Chávez.  Peter the Great’s deployment follows the arrival of two Russian Tu-160 nuclear bombers in Venezuela earlier this month.

If John McCain actually agrees, the first presidential debate will take place on Friday.  If he is shrewd, Obama might seek to portray his Republican opponent as reckless.  The American public has no stomach for another Cold War in the Caribbean, and yet McCain has contributed mightily to bringing such a scenario about.  For years, the Arizona Senator has advocated a hawkish foreign policy which has sought to isolate both Venezuela and Russia.  Predictably, this has resulted in bringing the two oil-producing nations together. 

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)

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