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For centuries, Russia has considered the Crimean peninsula a strategic asset for projecting power across the Black Sea to Turkey and beyond. The peninsula is littered with military installations, old and new. NPR's Lucian Kim visited a once top-secret submarine base that dates from the Cold War.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Today, white yachts bob on Balaclava Bay, a quiet inlet tucked out of view from the open waters of the Black Sea. But 30 years ago, this was a restricted area in Sevastopol and instead of yachts, the Soviet 14th Submarine Division occupied this idyllic bay. Yury Tarariyev, a former Soviet Navy captain, served on a submarine designed to launch nuclear Armageddon.
YURY TARARIYEV: (Through interpreter) When we went out to sea, we took on board nuclear warheads and were ready to use them if ordered to.
KIM: Of course, it never came to that. But the Soviet Navy was prepared to survive an American first strike, including a direct hit on the submarine base here.
TARARIYEV: (Through interpreter) Just so you understand, somehow a plane was supposed to penetrate all our air defenses and drop a nuclear bomb here, a mushroom cloud rises up, seawater floods the bay and covers the hilltops and then a wall of water comes crashing down on this gate, which holds it back.
KIM: Tarariyev is pointing at the gate, basically a giant metal cube weighing 165 tons that would have sealed off the base during a nuclear war. Today, the base is a museum and Tarariyev its director. He leads me inside.
TARARIYEV: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: Tarariyev says he watched with tears in his eyes when the last sub took to sea in 1992 and the abandoned base was plundered of anything of value. Crimea had suddenly become a province of independent Ukraine.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: That's Russian President Vladimir Putin justifying the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. He said the annexation would prevent Crimea's naval bases from falling into NATO's hands. Like many Crimeans, Tarariyev cheered the annexation. And now his museum is run by the Defense Ministry in Moscow. He hands me off to an assistant, Tatyana Stepantsevich, to guide me to the heart of the base built under 400 feet of rock.
We walk down a tunnel that's curved to deflect the shock waves from a 100-kiloton bomb blast. During the Cold War, there were enough supplies stockpiled here to last 30 days.
TATYANA STEPANTSEVICH: In front of us, we can see a dry dock. It's exactly the place where submarines were repaired.
KIM: The subs were brought to the dock deep under the mountain via a long underground canal.
STEPANTSEVICH: So now we will cross the channel across this bridge. It's quite peaceful. You can see some ducks in our channel.
STEPANTSEVICH: Yes. Can you see them?
KIM: Oh, wow. We've reached the most secret part of the base where nuclear warheads were stored before being loaded onto the subs. I asked my guide, who was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, what she thinks of the new tensions between Russia and the United States.
STEPANTSEVICH: I think it's not a good idea to return to those times, actually. It would be a great idea to be friends and to cooperate rather than to have a war, even if it is so-called Cold War.
KIM: She says secret submarine bases are best used as museums. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Balaclava, Crimea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.