When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukraine's navy lost nearly all of its ships and most of its sailors quit or defected. By 2020, with help from its allies, Ukraine is slowly getting its sea legs back. This is the story of those who remained loyal to Ukraine and were forced to choose between family and country when they left Crimea. As they rebuilt their lives and their nation's fleet, rough waters lay ahead with Russia flexing its maritime muscle on the Black Sea.
The Ukrainian Navy ships had been slowly dying in repairs that dragged on for unthinkable periods of time. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Kiev was left with the Hetman Sahaidachny, a Krivak III Patrol Frigate, a pair of 100 ton landing craft, and the 40 ton Project 1400 Zhuk-class Skadovsk speed-boat. The founder of the Russian navy, Peter the Great, had started with a clean slate.
Note that in 1997, when the completed section of the Black Sea Fleet of the former Soviet naval forces were transferred to Ukraine, it consisted of 43 warships, 132 ships and boats, 12 aircraft and 30 helicopters. By according to information from the official website of the Ministry, 2013 the Ukraine Navy numbered more than 25 warships and boats, over 50 support vessels and 30 aircraft. Ukrainian naval bases were : Odessa; Ochakov; Chernomorskoe; Novoozernii and Feodosiya. The main base of the Ukrainian Navy was Sevastopol.
Ukraine’s acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh described the combat readiness of the country’s armed forces as “unsatisfactory” in his 12 March 2014 report to the acting president. Tenyukh said recent exercises demonstrated a “dismal degree of preparedness among servicemen and lack of military specialists, equipment and weapons” in the Ground Forces, the Air Force and the Navy. As of March 1, only four vessels of the Ukrainian Navy were battle-ready: the Navy flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy, the Ternopil anti-submarine corvette, the Slavutych command ship and the Kostiantyn Olshansky large landing ship. “These ships are incapable of any actions threatening [Russia’s] Black Sea fleet,” the report read.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchnyov on 24 March 2014 ordered Kyiv's Defense Ministry to withdraw all Ukrainian troops from Crimea. But many soldiers and their families had no place to go on the mainland. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said those troops wishing to continue their service with the Ukrainian armed forces were free to leave Crimea and would receive the required assistance to do so. Russian sources report that less than 15 percent of the 18,000 Ukrainian military personnel stationed on the peninsula chose to leave.
The Navy of Ukraine was nominally designated to defeat enemy forces and infrastructure and assist the Ground Forces in conducting operations in littoral regions. The Navy consisted of the following branches: Surface Forces, Submarine Forces, Naval Aviation, Coastal Missile-Artillery Troops, Marines, as well as special formations and units, logistic and medical support units and military educational and scientific establishments. The main purpose of the Navy reform and development is the establishment of mission ready, structurally balanced component of the Armed Forces, equipped with state-of-the-art naval weapons, capable of accomplishing missions in assigned operational areas independently and jointly with other armed forces branches.
As is necessary for a modern state, Ukraine had all the navy branches: surface and submarine forces; coastal defence troops; marine corps; Special forces and support units. Maritime Border formations and units were transferred to the Navy. And consequently the mission of maintaining Ukrainian border integrity at sea and protection of its exclusive (economic) area will belong to the Navy.
The Ukrainian Navy is an integral structural component of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Navy consisted of groups and divisions of surface naval warfare, aviation and coastal units, command and control, support and logistics. The crucial missions to support the established status quo naval regime in the Black Sea were carried out by the Western and Northern Maritime Regions of the Ukrainian Navy. Ukrainian naval aviators were ready to execute missions round the clock under all-weather conditions. Ukrainian naval surface force sailors represented the country with dignity and honor in foreign nations around the world during long patrols, friendly port calls and multinational naval excercises.
Sebastopol Navy Institute was established on the base of two Sebastopol Naval Colleges in accordance with the order of Defence Minister of Ukrain N133,25.07.92 and Resolution of Ministers Cabinet of Ukraine N 490 ,19.08.92. The main goal of Navy Institute is to provide for the citizens of Ukraine and other countries the availabelity of getting the high education according to state level requirement set up by the law "About education".
The main tasks of Navy Institute were: organizing the enlightenment activity including teaching, nurturing, scientific, methodical and cultural work harmonical developing of personalities of student and naval cadets; constant increasing the level of training due to inculcation of advanced technologies, educational methods; organizing and condacting the researches to solve the military and economy problems and to develop officer's training; training the students for scietific activity on their own; training the faculty,developing their proficiency, conducting the refresher training for high educated military specialist; logistic, maintenance and methodical service for training. Sebastopol Navy Institute provides the training for different skill profiency levels that makes the Institute the center of specialized skill proficiency training for the Navy of Ukraine.
The decision of the Council for National Security and Defence “On Measures to provide for Development of Ukraine as a Naval State” [463/2008 of 20 May 2008] caused the intensification of development of the Naval Forces. The main document to determine the provisions for creating Special Operations Forces was the Programme of Development of Special Operations Forces of the Armed Forces.
The situation in Ukraine's Navy had been shaped for years – the degradation of the fleet, miniscule salaries of the officers, practical lack of combat training – all that served as a strong demoralizing factor, which was intensified by the fact that Russia's Black Sea Fleet in general was in better shape even in the most difficult years. And with the increase of officers' pay in 2011-12, the situation changed even more radically: Ukrainian captains were paid less than a Russian petty officer or contract sergeant, which did not stimulate their desire to defend Ukrainian sovereignty without sparing themselves.
The Russian defense ministry said 22 March 2014 "St. Andrew's flags of the Russian Navy had been raised on 54 out of 67 vessels of the Ukrainian Navy, including eight warships and one submarine". In the course of the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, by one account Russia seized some 20 or 25 Ukrainian ships, including the Grisha V class corvettes Lutsk and Ternopil, the Molniya-2 class torpedo boat Khmelnitskiy, the Foxtrot-class submarine Zaporizhia, and the command ship Slavutych. The status of another Grisha II, the Vinnitsya, the Molniya-2 class torpedo boat Uzgorod were unclear, but some sources report they were also under the control of Russian invaders (from 22 March 2014).
At least some of the the ships and vessels seized by Russia were to be transferred back to the Ukrainian Navy consistent with the decision of the Russian defense minister in late March 2014. But most of the vessels and craft of the former Ukrainian fleet had not gotten under way in some time, so they would have to be towed to their new homeport. It is not evident that the effort to move these rustbuckets would be a useful application of time and resources.
There is also the question of manning the fleet. At independence Ukraine had perhaps 4 thousand sailors, and a decade later perhaps 8 thousand. This out of a total headcount in 2013 of about 14,000, according to IISS. By one estimate about 12,000 of the 15,450 members of the Ukrainian Navy were based in the Crimea. Out of 18,000 Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea, 3,000 [ie, about a sixth of the total] said they wished to continue service with the Ukrainian armed forces, according to Russian sources. The Acting Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh reported that 4,300 soldiers from the Crimea [ie, about a quarter of the total] wanted to continue to serve in the Forces of Ukraine. Splitting the difference, these numbers suggest that about a fifth of the total troops in Crimea rallied to Uhraine, suggesting a total Navy headcount of no more than 3 thouand or so. In fact, as of 25 April 2014, the press service of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported those evacuated largely included 2,862 representatives of the Ukrainian Navy and their families.
Thousands of sailors and their families lived their entire lives in Crimea. Many soldiers and their families had no place to go on the mainland unless Kyiv provided support, and some feared jail for desertion. The story of a midshipman on the "Slavutych" is typical "Where am I supposed to go, to Ukraine? To be jailed there for five to seven years? My mother is disabled, my child goes to school in Sevastopol. I have a wife. How will I help them? Should I tell them to wait until they release me from jail? I have nothing against Ukraine, until 11 a.m. today I was a bona fide Ukrainian! But my wife called me and said, 'No way.' So I'll get drunk today. And tomorrow I'll return to serve on the 'Slavutych,' this time as a Russian."
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