“Historical conditions prompted Ukraine to look to the West, while geographical conditions made and still make it look to the south, to the Black Sea (…) In general, when the circumstances were conducive, Ukraine moved towards having broad control over the Black Sea coast and planting its foot here with authority” — Mykhailo Hrushevsky
Two decades ago, then President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma signed a decree setting up the Naval Forces of Ukraine. Omitting the particular circumstances, it can be said that the document made sense for a country that has shoreline along the Black Sea of over 1,500 km. Ukraine is a maritime country, something our leaders must understand. The Black Sea has always played an important role throughout our history.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian elites are still not fully aware of exactly how important it is. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, Crimea and Sevastopol together make up one of the most powerful geopolitical areas in Ukraine-Russia relations. The strategic role of this region is not hidden from the politicians in the Kremlin. The more experienced Russian power elites (over 500 years of state governance) are largely outplaying the Ukrainian leadership which cannot abandon archaic and provincial ideas about Ukraine’s place in the world, Europe and the Black Sea region.
THE COSSACK SEA
Ukraine’s history has been closely linked with a permanent struggle for military and political presence in the Black Sea, which was especially visible in the domination of the Cossack fleet in the 17th century when Ukrainian Cossacks continued the Kyivan Rus’ maritime policy. Noted Ukrainian historian Dmytro Doroshenko pointed out: “Their bold sea raids can compare only to those of their ancestors, the Rus' of the late Princely Era. The targets were the same: ancient Byzantium (contemporary Constantinople) or the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor and Crimea.”
Our Cossacks viewed the Black Sea as a sphere of their strategic interests and an internal Ukrainian body of water on whose coast they thought they had the right to rule. This rule was constantly enforced through regular sea raids and landings in the Balkans and Anatolia, attacks on Constantinople, Caffa, Sinop, Trebizond and Varna. Sir Thomas Roe, British ambassador posted to Constantinople, reported to London about a Cossack raid against the city on 9 June 1624 and wrote that they seriously threatened the large but anxious city and its power. Eventually, they withdrew with their plunder and unfurled banners – without a victory but not defeated by the Turks. This largely insignificant circumstance revealed a stunning truth about this large state – seemingly so menacing and powerful, it was, in fact, weak and defenceless. Several days later, Roe wrote, the Cossacks again attacked the city on the Strait of Bosporus and looted its suburbs.
The Cossacks were aware that if they did not rule over the Black Sea, someone else would come and threaten them.
This historical logic dictated attempts to form Ukrainian naval forces under the Central Rada, the Hetman Skoropadsky State and the Directory. The loss of naval positions almost always coincided in time with the loss of political independence. Ukraine was doomed to provincialisation if it did not control the Black Sea.
In October 1917, almost all vessels of the Black Sea Fleet for the first time hoisted blue-and-yellow flags on their masts and flag-communicated the following message: “Long live free Ukraine!” Unfortunately, the Central Rada failed to support this process at the time. It appointed Dmytro Antonovych, an outstanding Ukrainian public and political figure who was however completely unknowledgeable in naval issues to the office of Secretary General for Naval Affairs. The Central Rada leaders believed he had an undeniable virtue – socialist party membership. While adopting the Third Universal, which fixed the state borders of the Ukrainian National Republic, the Central Rada renounced Crimea. And while Ukrainian socialists were deliberating on their attitude to the Black Sea Fleet, the Bolsheviks quickly turned Sevastopol into “the Kronstadt of the South.”
WHY DO WE NEED A FLEET?
It is stunning how Ukraine repeated the mistakes of 1917-18 in the early 1990s. Our government had little or no idea at all of how important the Navy was for our state. The situation is not much better now, 21 years after gaining independence.
While the Subcarpathian, Kyiv and Odesa military districts eventually swore allegiance to Ukraine, the government did not have a clue about what to do with the fleet. What was it good for anyway? Moreover, a conflict with Moscow would be undesirable. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of the officers who commanded warships in the Black Sea Fleet kept Ukrainian flags hidden away in their safes and waited for a signal from Kyiv. But no signal was forthcoming. The Black Sea Fleet was in no one’s jurisdiction for several days, and Ukraine could have seized the opportunity. Army veterans say that Admiral Ihor Kasatonov, who commanded the fleet at the time, came to Kyiv to meet with Kravchuk, but the president had no time for him. A short time later, Moscow made time for him… The golden opportunity to quickly settle the Black Sea Fleet issue in the interests of our state was wasted by Kyiv. Patriotic officers together persistently urged the Ukrainian government to take immediate action. Finally, on 5 April 1992 after a long delay, Kravchuk sent a signal about creating Ukraine’s Navy.
The mindless actions of Ukrainian leaders in the early 1990s created an exceedingly dangerous problem for Ukraine. Unfortunately, there has been no progress on the issue since 1918. Our officers in Sevastopol did a great thing; if they had not forced officials in Kyiv to move on the fleet issue, Russian military bases would now be located not only in Sevastopol and Feodosia but also in Izmail, Odesa, Ochakiv, Mykolaiv and so on.
Unlike the government, the navy command was extremely enthusiastic. People left their offices from all around the country with a desire to build Ukraine’s navy. I know many civilians who relocated from Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia and Lviv to Sevastopol and southern Ukraine in general in order to contribute to this cause. They believed that Ukraine would be a powerful, strong, world-respected country and would need its own navy. But instead, it increasingly turned into the prey of former “red directors” and Communist Party nomenklatura. Many officers were disappointed.
One reader of The Ukrainian Week vividly described the events and sentiments of the time: “In 1992, I worked in a construction bureau in Mykolaiv which wanted to become a Ukrainian equivalent of Leningrad-based Rumb, i.e., the information base for the ship building industry. Late Valeriy Malev, the then Minister of the Military Industrial Complex and Conversion, said something to the effect: ‘Good job! Keep working’. But financing was not coming. Rumours also circulated that when a ship-building programme was presented to former President Kravchuk, his reaction was very short: ‘Boats? Why do we need boats?’
It was only two years later, during the 1994 presidential campaign, that he came to Mykolaiv, visited the Black Sea Shipyard and was overwhelmed by the sight of huge unfinished buildings. His idea of a fleet was that it was a set of pleasure boats on the Dnieper.
Back in 1992, the enthusiasm was simply indescribable! Russian-speaking engineers called meetings and had heated arguments about the best way to translate this term or another into Ukrainian.”
There were a number of truly heroic pages in the struggle for Ukraine’s fleet. Many vessels and navy units swore allegiance to Ukraine after which the Black Sea Fleet command began to repress them. In one case, patrol ship SKR-112 under the command of Lieutenant Captain Serhiy Nastenko and with the involvement of Captain 2nd Rank Zhyvarev left bay Denuzlav (near Yevpatoriya) on 21 July 1992, hoisted the state flag of Ukraine and set course on Odesa. Three combat ships of the Black Sea Fleet began pursuit. On the other side, a Ukrainian SU-27 fighter jet flew from Odesa and Ukrainian maritime border guards arrived. SKR-112 became one of the first ships in Ukraine’s Navy.
In the past several years, Ukraine’s Navy received just one new vessel – the corvette Ternopil (commissioned in February 2006). A number of vessels reached the end of their lifetime years ago. Meanwhile, Ukrainian leaders show interest in the Navy only for appearance’s sake. The military establishment eyes the Navy, just like the entire Armed Forces, only from the angle of selling property and military towns. So now they are doomed to miserable existence without any prospects.
Mykola Savchenko, Captain 1st Rank and head of the Navy’s press centre, who was directly involved in the difficult events of the 1990s, aptly said: “The political processes in Crimea and the separatism of those who wanted to split the peninsula away from Ukraine and make it Russian left a serious imprint on the way the Ukrainian state and its Navy were formed. Our navy sailors were essentially outcasts in their own land and state, left without any support. It was as if they had been led in an attack and then abandoned without ammunition. Many of those who were in the first ranks back then lost any hope in the ideals in which they believed, got tired of hitting their heads against the wall and retired. Such was our common pain. There is perhaps no greater tragedy for a person than to lose hope. But no-one will convince me that either this time of struggle or everything that has been done is futile”.
UKRAINE’S NAVY: A TIMELINE
January-February 1992 – servicemen in the 3rd Diver School, 17th Patrol Ship Brigade of the Crimean Naval Base and the 880th Marine Battalion of the Black Sea Fleet swore allegiance to the Ukrainian people
5 April 1992 – President Leonid Kravchuk issued the decree “On Urgent Measures to Build the Armed Forces of Ukraine” under which Ukraine’s Navy was to be set up using the facilities of the Black Sea Fleet located in Ukraine. Rear Admiral Borys Kozhyn was the first commander of Ukraine’s Navy
29 March 1992 – frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, a border patrol vessel, was launched
7 April 1992 – servicemen of the 41st School for Junior Communications Specialists in Mykolaiv swore allegiance to Ukraine
21 July 1992 – patrol ship SKR-112 joined Ukraine’s Navy
28 July 1992 – Ukraine’s state flag was hoisted on Slavutych, the first ship built specifically for Ukraine’s Navy
June 1993 – corvette Lutsk, built by the Kyiv-based Leninska Kuznya plant, started performance tests
1 July 1993 – the first marine battalion of Ukraine’s Navy was formed near Sevastopol
3 August 1993 – an agreement was signed between Ukraine and Russia on the principles of forming the military fleets of both countries from the Soviet Black Sea Fleet on a parity basis (50 per cent for each side)
Spring 1995 – military units and formations of the Izmail and Ochakiv garrisons joined Ukraine’s Navy
Second half of 1997 – the division of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Ukraine and Russia was completed. Ukraine received 43 combat ships, 132 vessels and power boats, 12 planes, 30 helicopters, 227 onshore installations, as well as other equipment, ammunition and military property
May 2001 – an operations and tactical formation of the Navy was set up – a squadron of various forces whose ships participate in international naval exercises
15 March 2002 – the corvette Ternopil was launched
The author dedicates this article to the memory of his brother, Yevhen Losiev, Captain 1st Rank in the Ukrainian Navy
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