Russia’s nuclear-armed Northern Fleet is falling to pieces – quite literally – as scavengers plunder its ships of precious metal components.
Hundreds of naval officers and civilian contractors have joined with criminal gangs in the illegal trade targeting anything containing a few dollars’ worth of gold, silver or palladium.
Millions of dollars are being made on smuggling the loot abroad, and naval equipment worth perhaps hundreds of millions is being ruined in the process, Russian TV reports.
Warships and submarines, both decommissioned and in active service, often find themselves missing vital components, including telecommunication circuit boards, air regeneration filters and even torpedoes.
“Expensive equipment is rendered inoperative as a result of these thefts,” says Vladimir Mulov, the Northern Fleet’s military prosecutor.
“Parts, for example, are stolen from anti-aircraft systems. Such thefts cause enormous damage to the ships’ military capability.”
Much of the trade takes place around the northern city of Murmansk, the homeport of the ill-fated submarine Kursk, which sank with the loss of all hands following an explosion during a naval exercise.
The port has become the scene of fierce turf wars between rival gangs which has claimed more than 10 lives this year alone, says its police chief Viktor Pesterev.
One Russian Granit-class nuclear-powered submarine contains roughly a tonne of silver, more than 30 kg of pure gold and 20 kg of the precious metal palladium, experts say.
Some of this potential treasure is dispersed in thousands of tiny circuit-board components throughout the ship.
An air regeneration cartridge can be sold for 2,000 dollars A detailed diagram showing where such components can be found on a submarine, along with instructions on how best to dismantle them, was recently found during a police raid.
But just one shoebox-sized air regeneration cartridge, for example, can yield 139 grams of palladium, worth over 2,000 dollars on the black market, the TV says.
No wonder places like Murmansk are littered with booths of scrap metal dealers, and local papers are filled with advertisements offering a good price for precious metal – no questions asked.
Officers and thieves
Shipyards and naval bases have employed guards with metal detectors in an effort to keep the ships’ components where they belong.
But that does not always help. One recent victim is the nuclear submarine Kazan, which lost her air regeneration filters. They were stolen by two officers who were supposed to guard them.
Still on trial for a similar offence is the chief of a naval garrison and a naval captain.
Of the 147 people investigated for the theft of precious metals from the military last year, more than half were officers.