MOSCOW - Under intense pressure to collect unpaid bills, a Russian electrical utility cut off power to a strategic missile base - which retaliated by sending troops to seize a switching station and turn the lights back on.
The drastic moves were a symptom of Russia's chronic web of nonpayment, in which large companies and government agencies don't pay cash for energy, raw materials and taxes - a habit that economists say drags down the economy.
A local branch of the national electricity utility, Unified Energy Systems, cut power Monday to a Strategic Rocket Forces base about 60 miles northeast of Moscow, saying it owed about $683,000.
''We have been pushing them for one year to pay for the energy on time, with no result,'' Yuri Kozlov, the head of the Teikovo power grid, said on RTR government television.
The military responded quickly, capturing a switching station. ''We have orders not to let any operator switch off the power,'' said Lt. Sergei Nikiforov, who commanded the platoon that occupied the station.
The military later agreed to talks on settling debts and recalled the soldiers, and the utility agreed to keep the power on, according to a power company statement.
The company, which controls most of Russia's power grid, is a key link in a vast chain of barter, offsets and in-kind payments that economists say creates hidden subsidies that keep Soviet-era industrial dinosaurs alive for political reasons.
Dmitry Korshunov, the power company's spokesman in Moscow, told The Associated Press the cutoff had only affected non-combat units at the base, ''and only after repeated warnings.''
Institutions subjected to blackouts for unpaid bills in recent years have at times included hospitals, an air traffic control center, coal mines and a city sewage plant. In 1995, sailors at an Arctic submarine base forced engineers to turn the power back on at gunpoint after a cutoff threatened to disrupt the cooling system on a submarine's nuclear reactor.
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov assailed this week's cutoff, saying it was ''impermissible'' since military bases were on a list of institutions that could not be cut off.
The electricity utility, headed by the government's former chief economic policy-maker, Anatoly Chubais, has been trying to collect unpaid bills, in part because it is facing pressure from natural gas giant Gazprom to pay its own bill for the gas it uses.
Korshunov said the utility would continue pushing all customers, including the military, to pay. ''We will act in a very tough manner,'' he said. ''If we don't collect debts, we will have no money to buy fuel during the winter.''