By Tom Waldwyn, Assistant Research Analyst for Maritime Forces and Defence Industry
The Ukrainian navy has been much reduced over the past 13 months. In February 2014, Ukraine’s naval headquarters were at Sevastopol; one year later they had been moved to Odessa, with only one principal surface combatant and seven patrol and coastal combatants (down from ten). With the annexation by Russia of Crimea, Ukraine lost the bulk of its naval forces.
Losses in Crimea began on 2 March 2014 with the defection to pro-Russian forces of navy chief Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky. Though he went, Berezovsky failed to persuade any of his officers to join him and naval personnel elsewhere on the peninsula largely remained loyal to Kiev. Then, on 6 March, Russian sailors scuttled ships, including the decommissioned Russian Kara-class cruiser Ochakov (pennant number: 707), in the channel connecting Lake Donuzlav with the Black Sea, blocking Ukrainian vessels at their base at Novoozerne. On the same day, the flagship of the Ukrainian Navy, the frigate Hetman Sagaidachny (U130), arrived in Odessa, by then flagged as naval headquarters. The ship had recently completed its deployment to NATO’s Ocean Shield and the EU Naval Force’s Operation Atalanta counter-piracy missions, both operational in the Gulf of Aden, offshore Somalia.
Despite an attempt by Ukrainian forces to tow one of the scuttled ships and lift the blockade, by late March the majority of Ukraine’s Crimean naval bases and associated vessels had either surrendered to or been boarded by Russian forces. The last vessel to hold out in Sevastopol was the command ship Slavutich (U510), which was boarded on 23 March. In Novoozerne, the Natya-class minesweeper Cherkassy (U311) was taken over two days later, ending Ukrainian control of naval assets on the peninsula.
While some Ukrainian naval vessels, such as the Foxtrot-class Zaporizhya – Ukraine’s sole submarine – were absorbed into Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the majority were returned. However, in mid-April 2014 Moscow halted the repatriation of materiel due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the loss of both shore infrastructure and hulls, Ukraine was in September 2014 still able to send eight ships to participate in the multinational naval exercise Sea Breeze 2014. Meanwhile, in early 2015, the Hetman Sagaidachny conducted joint drills with the US Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Donald Cook in the Black Sea. Whilst Sea Breeze 2014 focused on ‘maritime interdiction operations, communications, search and rescue, force protection and navigation’, according to NATO, Ukraine’s participation indicates that the Ukrainian Navy retains some capability in its littoral areas. Moreover, Ukraine co-organised the exercise with the US.
Though its forces are much depleted, Kiev maintains an aspiration to develop its naval capability. In an early April 2015 speech in Odessa, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko said that Ukraine aims to modernise its navy to NATO standards. This is reflected by moves to broaden its defence imports and exports, training and alliances with other nations following the collapse of the country’s relationship with Russia. Kiev has for some years maintained contacts with NATO forces related to exercise participation, and mission participation in the counter-piracy realm.
However, in early 2015 Russia retains control of some of Ukraine’s naval assets, and their fate remains unclear. As well as the Foxtrot-class boat, the Russians still control two of Ukraine’s three Grisha-class corvettes and one of two Pauk-class patrol craft. A number of auxiliaries are also assessed to be still in Russian hands, as well as the minesweeper Cherkassy. Many of the former Ukrainian Navy vessels are in ‘poor condition’ and so service in the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be unlikely. The administration in Crimea has even allocated two warships for museum use. Amid these reports, and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the return of these vessels to the Ukrainian Navy becomes a more remote prospect.
The Military Balance 2015 features analysis of Ukraine's military capabilities, displaying key forces by role, equipment inventories and defence economics.
The Military Balance is The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries worldwide. It is an essential resource for those involved in security policy-making, analysis and research. The Military Balance 2015 was released on 11 February. Print copies are available to order.