KYIV -- Decades-long Kremlin-sponsored kleptocracy has robbed the Russian navy of its capabilities and turned it into an international embarrassment -- with Russian sailors and their families paying the price, say observers.
The Russian navy's performance in the war in Ukraine has brought to the forefront corruption within its ranks.
The sinking of the Moskva missile cruiser, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, on April 14, 2022, is one such example.
The ship was deployed for air interdiction over southwestern Ukraine but proved incapable of protecting itself from Ukrainian missiles.
A week after it sank, the Russian Ministry of Defence, wishing to avoid admitting the Ukrainians scored a huge military success, said the Moskva sank from a fire and an ammunition explosion.
More than a month later, several families said on social media or in statements to independent Russian or foreign press that they were still unable to find their sons and relatives who were serving on the Moskva.
'Classic Russian scheme'
But the Moskva may have been doomed to fail even before it deployed to enforce a blockade on the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
Military analysts have questioned the quality of the crew's training and the ability of the cruiser's radars; however, the real problem was "endemic corruption", News.com.au reported at the time.
Just weeks before the Moskva sank, police detained a naval officer and two contracting executives involved in its renovation, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported March 23. They are accused of failing to upgrade other warships as promised.
Thieving contractors allegedly stole 692 million RUB ($8.5 million) intended for missile upgrades for various warships in 2012 and 2014, leaving much of the work unfinished, investigators found.
Disregarding a list of certified military contractors, Capt. 1st Rank Igor Supranovich allegedly added an unknown firm that eventually won the 2012 contract, according to Kommersant. He was the naval officer arrested in March 2022.
The same company won a major contract for another round of missile upgrade work in 2014, worth 1 billion RUB ($12.2 million).
"This is a classic scheme in Russia," Valeriy Klochok, a political analyst and director of the Vezha Public Analytics Centre, said of the corruption in Russian military contracting.
"A procurement order is created for a specific person, it is executed, money is paid from the budget, and then comes the kickback."
"This is how you form a circle of billionaires and businessmen who are close to power and know how to share the spoils and keep quiet," he said. "They keep their mouths shut."
Despite a major overhaul of the Russian navy, it remains a paper tiger and one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest embarrassments -- with corruption to blame, analysts say.
"It's all a terrible mega-business [based on] scattering and stealing money," said Ukrainian reservist Capt. 1st Rank Pavlo Lakiychuk, director of security projects at the Strategy XXI Centre for Global Studies in Kyiv.
"Russia wasn't preparing for a maritime war. Maybe someone told Putin that something needed to be done with the fleet, but that was only to loot money," he said.
A single consortium that brings together all of Russia's ship repair firms and shipbuilders was even created to line officials' pockets, according to Lakiychuk.
"The larger the company, the easier theft becomes," he said.
Russia's biggest warship and only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, stands out as a long-running example.
The general director of the shipyard in Murmansk that was repairing the Admiral Kuznetsov was arrested in connection with charges of embezzling funds, TASS reported in March 2021.
The aircraft carrier has been used to steal contract money so often that it is hard to count how much has been lost, say watchers of the Russian military.
"The story with the Admiral Kuznetsov is very old," said Klochok.
The Russians have been running post-mortem investigations for years trying to figure out how much money was stolen, why nothing on the ship works and why the ship has not been scrapped yet, he said.
"They've even created some sort of commission that is investigating, but I don't think that all these investigations and searches will be made public."
Publicly noting the commission's work would mean admitting that the government cannot keep track of its own funds, he added.
The Admiral Kuznetsov has caught fire a number of times over the years, the latest in 2022, and suffered serious damage in October 2018 when a crane crashed onto its deck.
Another Russian navy vessel beyond repair is the missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), the flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet.
The fourth and last Kirov-class cruiser, considered the world's largest surface combatant nuclear powered vessel, might be sent to the scrapyard because of high maintenance and modernisation costs, TASS reported in April.
The ship is also a victim of corruption. A 2010 contract for the repair of the vessel was awarded to a shell company impersonating a known ship repair yard, Corruption Tracker reported in 2020.
The phony company, which did not even have proper permits, overcharged for work that never happened.
Repair work on another vessel of the class -- the Admiral Nakhimov -- may have discouraged Russian naval officials from repairing the Pyotr Velikiy.
"The experience of repairing and modernising the Admiral Nakhimov ... has shown that this is very costly," a navy source told TASS.
"For 10 years already they [officials] have been saying they will overhaul [the Admiral Nakhimov] and deploy it in the fleet," said Lakiychuk. "But an audit of the vessel's systems and mechanisms indicates that problems already exist not only with the hull but also with the nuclear reactor itself."
"It could simply fall through the rotten hull to the bottom of the sea."
The Russian fleet has long been a threat to the environment -- not to the Kremlin's opponents, according to Lakiychuk.
"For a long time now, everyone in the world has considered the Russian nuclear fleet -- both submarines and surface ships -- as a kind of slow-acting bomb that sooner or later might simply explode," he said.
Kleptocracy the main threat
Kleptocracy represents one of the main threats to the Russian military, hindering all the Kremlin's foreign policy ambitions, analysts say.
"They steal enthusiastically -- specifically at the government level," said reservist Capt. 1st Rank Andriy Ryzhenko, former deputy chief of staff of the Ukrainian navy and an analyst at the Centre for Defence Strategies.
"The government allocates $8,000 [per year] to supply each Russian soldier. That's a good amount, four times more than in Ukraine," he said.
That amount is comparable to what Israel's military spends, Ryzhenko noted.
"But if you go to the Israeli army and look at how its soldiers live, and then compare that with Russian soldiers -- it's heaven and earth," he said.
"The thing is, [Russians] don't understand that it's a kleptocracy," said Klochok. "They just call it 'making a living' ... all of this ultimately affects the standard of living of ordinary people."