Back in 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula, and with it went two thirds of Ukraine’s naval capability, with a large portion of its soldiers either quitting or defecting to serve the daunting federation, this being one of the worst effects of what Lieutenant Colonel Mykhaylo Yurchenko calls, “The Hybrid War”. Without going into the merits of the geopolitical situation surrounding the annexation, how is Ukraine facing this crisis, and what is it doing to recover?
Step 1 – Beating the Bureaucracy
The Ukrainian government is drowned in bureaucracy, which makes most processes extremely tedious, often much slower than they need to be. Many circumstances have led to this situation – for one thing the county’s defence budget was for a significant period held as state secret, which naturally signals a playground for the corrupt and those willing to bulk up their pockets.
This level of back and forth dealings behind closed curtains not only acts as a burden on national operations, but also slows down help from being provided by allies. A perfect example is the transfer of the American boats mentioned in point 2, where although work on the deal started back in 2014, massive delays were forced due to lack of transparency and issues with permissions for the Defence ministry. Major problems were conceived simply because of the fact that the ministry could not even sign a deal, due to the state-run company that was acting as ‘middleperson’, UkrOboronProm, which was accused of wide corruption including asking fees reaching up to 25% of contracts’ worth. This was uncovered by investigations by RFE/RL Service program ‘Schemes’.
To continue adding onto the cherry-filled cake, Ukraine’s previous president Petro Poroshenko also harboured conflicts of interest in the affair, being the owner of the Kuznya Na Rybalskomu shipyard, a major government contract awardee for the building of new combat boats for the same Ukrainian navy. All of the issues mentioned were for a long them withheld under the umbrella of ‘national secret’, an issue that is being tackled slowly by the current Zelensky through transparency legislation and further NATO integration. These efforts then have a ripple-effect, which means that more foreign investment may be attracted, and in fact recent years have seen the US strengthening its naval infrastructure, especially in the ports of Ochakiv and Mykolayiv.
Step 2 – Strengthening Allied Relationships
With Russia’s ever-growing presence on the Crimean Peninsula and the Black sea, ranging from sea to land and air capability, Ukraine would simply be a mouse waiting to be swallowed by its giant neighbour, were it to face it alone. And so it stands to no one’s doubt that closer cooperation with western allies is intrinsic to the country’s very survival. Currently, the US coast guard has plans in motion to send four retired Island-class hulls to Ukraine, of which two have already arrived (Slavyansk P190 and Starobilsk P191) in the port of Odessa. Now it may seem as if this is merely an offloading program by the US to get rid of its excess weight, but for the Ukrainian forces this deal means that its navy’s capability will be significantly upgraded.
Apart from Russia, Ukraine also continues to need help from its allies to control its own territory, as pro-Russian separatists continue to threaten the country’s integrity. The rebels have substantial control over the eastern region, north of the Sea of Azov, and talks to end the now six year old conflict seem to be moving with little speed, albeit having been made a top priority by president Zelensky. A mixture of Ukraine accusing Russia of arming its rebels and Russia accusing Ukraine of slowing down negotiations by refusing to speak with rebel representatives, have clearly acted as a major choke point, and even agreements previously bartered with the help of Germany and France, have failed to be acted upon.
Step 3 – Resisting Russian Expansion
Since the annexation, Russia has shown no sign of relaxing its military position on the area, as it continues to bolster its coverage of the black sea and control as much of it as it can. An example of its sustained hostility was presented to us just two years ago, when Russian forces opened fire on and consequently seized three Ukrainian vessels that were crossing into the Azov sea. Interestingly, this was a point were Russia showed that it had claimed full control of the Kerch Strait, a move widely accepted as one that breaches international law. It is noteworthy that this trio was made up of two gunboats (Berdyansk, Nikopol) and one tug (Yana Kapa), and have since been returned along with the 24 sailors on board, marking a hint at a slowly improving relationship between the two countries, as intended by Ukrainian president Zelensky.
But this does not necessarily mean that there is light to be seen at the end of the tunnel, not just yet at least. In addition to the Crimean annexation and total control of the Kerch Strait, Russia also occupied Ukrainian oil rigs adjacent to Ukraine’s so-called serpent island. The militarisation of these rigs has since continued to raise worry that there are plans to blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which would wreak havoc in the Ukrainian economy. The ports are already extremely ill-affected by Russia’s control of the waters, as well as the not so uncommon military exercises that force large parts of the sea to be closed for commercial purposes.
Step 4 – Rally behind the flag
If there is one positive outcome that can be taken from the mass defection of soldiers to the Russian military, it is that those who remained now share a common tale, a tale of betrayal or of hurt, one that brings them closer together as those who remained loyal to their country. And this is no minor occurrence. In fact, a significant portion of military training is now dedicated specifically towards loyalty and resistance to Russian coercion tactics, in hopes that such an event that brought the Navy to its knees, does not repeat itself.
Step 5 – Rebuilding the Navy
US-trained captain and former navy deputy chief of staff, Andriy Ryzhenko, was tasked with planning a 15-year plan to rebuild the Ukrainian Navy. His plan seems to point towards moving away from big, expensive ships, to smaller, cheaper but more agile boats, which can be bought and built in larger numbers, to make up what is called the ‘Mosquito Fleet’. The aim of this fleet would be mainly to protect shipping and deter Russian interference by holding strong missile capability.
A medical vessel has now also been deployed, and is currently being used to quarantine COVID-19 positive-tested sailors, so that the navy may continue its work with as much containment being done as possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Written by: Gianluca Vella