Sunday, 23 March 2014

Russia’s hostile takeover of the Ukrainian navy

In the past days we saw a fast chain of events that altered the balance of power within the Black Sea. In the earlier days of the Russian invasion of the Crimea we saw efforts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) to preserve the Ukrainian navy. The BSF even went so far as to sink the old anti-submarine vessel Ochakov to block Donuzlav Lake on the 7th of March. About 7 Ukrainian warships were trapped in Donuzlav Lake as the sunken ship blocked the only channel out of the lake.

At that point nobody was really sure what game the Russians were playing. It was obvious that they were trying to neutralize the Ukrainian navy but nobody could really tell whether the trapped Ukrainian ships were to be used as a bargain chip for negotiations or to be taken over by the Russians. The past days we witnessed the answer as Russia seized several ships of the Ukrainian navy and put them into their service.

Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships in Sevastopol on Thursday. The ships concerned are the corvettes Ternopil, Lutsk and Khmelnitsky . Afterwards things happened fast. Several other ships were reported to be seized while others spontaneous defected to the Russian side and joined the Black Sea Fleet.

The submarine Zaporizhzhia also defected to the Russian navy on Saturday on March 22. The Zaporizhzhia is the only submarine in the Ukrainian navy. She is an Foxtrot class submarine, build in 1970 and transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian navy in 1997.

Latest news reports on Sunday speak of 54 out of 67 ships of the Ukrainian navy have joined the Black Sea Fleet, including the flagship of the Ukrainian navy, the Slavutich. Most of the ships are support ships but the Russians have by now already taken over 3 Grisha class corvettes, 1 Foxtrot class submarine and 1 Matka class missile boat.

The strategic implications are enormous. By taking over the ships Russia manages to neutralize the Ukrainian navy as an effective fighting force. Although most ships are in a worse shape than the ships of the Black Sea Fleet, the input of Ukrainian ships have strengthened the Black Sea Fleet. With the transfer of Ukrainian ships, the Black Sea Fleet, already the most powerful navy in the Black Sea, made sure that it remains the dominant force in this area. Russia also made sure that Ukraine will not deliver any significant increase of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea if Ukraine should join NATO in the future.

Also important to note is that Russia changed its tactics. In august 2008 Russian forces pillaged the Georgian naval base at the port of Poti on 12 august 2008. They also sank every warship in the port to prevent their use against Russia in a possible new conflict. Already suffering from a bad western image, the destruction of the Ukrainian ships wasn’t in the Kremlin’s best options. Instead it choose the lesser of two evils and the Russians took over as much ships as possible to prevent the Ukrainian navy to mount an effective threat in the future.

At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea allowed the Russians to get control over the Sevmorverf shipyard. The shipyard is engaged in the repair, modernization and re-equipment of Russian and Ukrainian Naval ships and submarines.  The shipyard also operates 3 dry docks:


Dock #1
290.0 meters (951.4 ft)
36.0 meters (118.1 ft)
11.0 meters (36.1 ft)

Dock #2
173.4 meters (569 ft)
25.8 meters (85 ft)
9.1 meters (30 ft)

Dock #3
152.0 meters (498.7 ft)
25.8 meters (85 ft)
8.1 meters (27 ft)

Having control over the Sevmorverf shipyard allows the Russians to start building and repairing ships of the Black Sea Fleet completely on their own. This would be a further increase in the autonomy of the Black Sea Fleet and allows it to operate independent of Russia’s other fleets and shipyards. In the aftermath of the Russian takeover of the Crimea it is the Black Sea Fleet that emerges as the biggest winner of this conflict.

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