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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Destruction of a Squadron. A sequel

Does Ukraine need a Ukrainian navy?
21 July, 2009 - 00:00

Nobody in Ukraine seems to have noticed Western media and internet reports in the spring and summer of this year on the plight of the unfinished aircraft carrier (in Soviet terminology:

”heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser”) Variag (“Varangian”) which the Chinese bought from us eleven years ago. Or did the interested parties notice but deliberately ignore the reports? For the situation looks very intriguing, and, if we were a “normal” country, an ad hoc parliamentary commission would have already been working and the public would be demanding that the guilty be punished irrespective of their ranks and previous merits.

Let me remind you the crux of the matter. The aircraft carrier Variag (Riga before July 19, 1990, and Shi Lang since November 2008) is the so-called sister ship (a ship of the same class or series) of Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The ship, launched in Mykolayiv on November 25, 1988, was to be the first Soviet classical heavy aircraft carrier: it was planned to equip her with steam-powered catapults instead of a bow ski-jump ramp, as was the case with Admiral Kuznetsov. A catapult take-off allows an aircraft not only to save fuel (and, hence, increase its range and duration of flight) but also carry the maximum combat load. Besides, catapults make it possible for not only fighters and attack planes but also heavier AWACS aircraft to take off from the deck.

When the USSR collapsed, the ship became Ukraine’s property. In 1992 the 67-percent-finished Variag was mothballed. In April 1998 she was sold to the Chinese company Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd at a ridiculous price of 20 million dollars (plus the inevitable and perhaps much larger “kickbacks” received by the then top Ukrainian officials) ostensibly to be converted into a floating entertainment center.

Incidentally, the same company acquired in the same year from the Koreans the former Russian Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carrier Minsk equipped with vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which Moscow had sold off as scrap metal. The Chinese military and engineers examined the aircraft carrier for two years and then made her an entertainment center that fetches a monthly profit of one million dollars.

But the question is not about Minsk, quite an obsolete ship launched as long ago as 1975 and incapable of carrying supersonic fighters and fighter-bombers. It is about the Variag. It is now intensively being finished (the Chinese have signed a power plant supply contract with French companies), with sea trials scheduled for the next year – without live-fire exercises so far. Besides, mainland China has already begun to produce the J-10 and J-11B aircraft capable of taking off from and landing on the aircraft carrier. Experts estimate that China will be able to fully commission this powerful ship in five to seven years, which will essentially boost the Chinese Navy’s operational capacity.

I am telling this story not because I want to lament again, as do certain patriotically-minded individuals, about Ukraine lacking nuclear weapons, strategic aviation, tank armies and airborne divisions. It is about something else: a heavy strike aircraft carrier, even a 67-percent-finished one, could have been sold for at least a billion dollars; an agreement could have been signed on the finishing of Variag by the Ukrainian side, in which case she would have cost even more. And Ukraine could have used thus raised handsome money for fitting out its navy.

Could have… If Ukraine were ruled by a different kind of leaders.


In accordance with the Military Doctrine of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Navy’s objective is to defend the sovereignty and national interests of Ukraine at sea, defeat enemy naval units in its operational area independently or in collaboration with other branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and assist the Ukrainian Army in littoral operations.

Organizationally, the Ukrainian Navy consists of the headquarters; a combined-arms squadron; two naval bases (Southern and Western); a naval air brigade; a coastal defense brigade; special-purpose units and subunits; units and establishments of operational, technical, logistical and medical support; and the Sevastopol Naval Institute.

The Navy’s operational area includes the Black and Azov Sea water surface; the rivers Danube, Dniester, and Dnieper, as well as other sea areas as required by national interests.

The main naval base is the city of Sevastopol, the other bases being Odesa, Novoozerne, Saky, and Sevastopol (the last three in the Crimea).

The Navy consists of five branches: surface ships, submarines, naval aviation, coastal missile and artillery troops, and marines.

These laconic formulas can be found in the official documents that determine the Ukrainian Navy’s organization and activities. But let us ask a logical question: what is there to help attain these objectives? According to unofficial but informed sources, the Navy had, as of the end of 2008, a strength of about 20,000, including 15,000 servicemen, over 30 warships and auxiliary vessels (not a single submarine, incidentally), four fixed-wing and eight rotary-wing antisubmarine aircraft, 39 tanks, 178 other armored vehicles, 66 over-100-mm artillery systems, and two coastal anti-ship missile batteries.

Let us face it: it is not too much for the Navy to attain its serious objectives. And, speaking in no uncertain terms, it is obviously insufficient.

Naturally, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey being NATO members, these Black Sea states are extremely unlikely to resort to reckless military actions, but one should still remember that some influential political forces in Rumania are publicly making territorial claims to Ukraine and it is not ruled out that if these forces come to power, they may sacrifice NATO membership for the sake of Romania Mare (“Greater Romania”). On the other hand, the Russian Federation is officially a strategic partner of Ukraine, but it is also home to some of those who wish to grab a part of someone else’s territory or create one more puppet “state” in the Black Sea basin. Meanwhile, the Rumanian Navy notably outstrips the Ukrainian Navy in the number of the personnel and ships, although that country has an incomparably shorter sea coast line than Ukraine. The Russian Black Sea Fleet, including the marines and naval aviation, is far stronger than the Ukrainian Navy. Obviously, there is such an essential factor of stability as Turkey, a years-long NATO member, whose navy greatly outstrips, by all accounts, both the Ukrainian Navy and the Russian Black Sea Fleet (the presence of the Russian guided-missile cruiser Moskva cannot radically change the situation here: although the Turkish Navy does not have ships of this class, the Turks have 17 submarines against two Russian ones, of which only one is serviceable).

Naturally, if Ukraine were a NATO member, none of these problems would have come up. But we really have what we have. Therefore, we should either care for our security and national interests by ourselves (which, of course, does not rule out but, on the contrary, encourages seeking out reliable allies) or pretend that everything is OK and try not to irritate some of our stronger neighbors. Who? Rumania or Russia. And perhaps Belarus, too. For, unlike in Ukraine, the government does not forget about the army in the latter.

If the government of Ukraine ever remembers the army, it does this in a rather special way. Firstly, on festive days, when the highest-ranking officials speak out resounding words and dish out generous promises. Secondly, on weekdays, when one can reap another profit on military supplies.

But let us get back to the acute problems of Ukrainian seamen. Since Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement in 1997 on the partition of the USSR Black Sea Fleet, the Ukrainian Navy has been developing mainly at the expense of contributions from various regions of the country rather than by way of governmental funding. But is this sufficient for a viable navy, when it is necessary not only to keep sailors well-fed and provide officers with housing but also repair and build new ships and other facilities, furnish the ships with all they need on a long-endurance cruise, etc.? What saved the situation was the patriotism of naval officers: sociological surveys show that it was and still is the highest among all the branches and services of the Armed Forces. This is only natural because during the partition everybody was personally choosing his further destiny, with the Russian Navy offering more generous pay.

The Navy pinned great hopes on the end of the “Kuchma era” and the coming to power in Ukraine of a new, seemingly patriotic and professional, team. It seemed for some time that these hopes began to come true. Speaking to naval servicemen in Sevastopol in the summer of 2005 during the Ukrainian Navy Day celebrations, President and Supreme Commander-in-Chief Viktor Yushchenko emphasized that the government was looking for possibilities to fit the Navy out with up-to-date equipment. “The economic results that we have achieved allow us to confirm that the state is now able to marshal resources for keeping up the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including the Navy,” the president said, adding that there would soon be a so-called road map that will show what exactly is to be done in the nearest five years to make sure that the Armed Forces of Ukraine acquire new equipment and the state places orders for new ships and armaments. Yushchenko said that, as agreed upon with the minister of defense, the road map will be annually complemented with new funding resources – from both the budget and alternative sources. “The problem of having a decent navy is the problem of not only the Ministry of Defense but also the entire nation. Every territory must find a way to support the Navy,” the president said.

Well said indeed!

Four years later, Yushchenko spoke again in Sevastopol, now to mark a somewhat renamed holiday, Navy Day. Again, there was so much bombast and promises: “We are caring today for furnishing the national Navy with modern ships, weapon systems and equipment. I am sure we will successfully and timely fulfill the program of building naval corvettes. We will complete the reform of the entire system of training naval specialists in the nearest future… By force of its geographical situation, political and economic potential, Ukraine is and must be a great sea power. This is a point of our national honor. This task is one of the national policy priorities even during the current economic crisis.” Then in even more pompous terms: “We are a great and strong state. Our navy is our assurance and pride. It is an unshakable bulwark of freedom, peace, and good future for entire Ukraine.”

An unshakable bulwark… Our pride…

Indeed, Ukraine could have had a good Black Sea navy that would be its pride. But in the past 12 years – after the partition of the USSR Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine, when the latter received about 70 warships of different classes, – the number of the Ukrainian Navy’s personnel and vessels have been steadily diminishing. For example, three of the four frigates (Sevastopol, Mykolaiv, and Dnipropetrovsk), five corvettes (Chernivtsi, Uzhhorod, Sumy, Kherson, and Iziaslav), one of the three large landing ships (Rivne), and all the four small landing ships, including the Donetsk built in independent Ukraine (commissioned in June 1993), have been scrapped. Out of the six remaining corvettes, two were withdrawn from active service. This means the powers-that-be remembered about the Navy only as about a way to pocket more and more millions of dollars by scrapping the ships that were still able to sail the seas for more than one decade.

And what about the repair saga of Ukraine’s only submarine Zaporizhzhia, which has been dragging on for 12 years and no one knows what it will end up with? At first they bought wrong storage batteries from Greece, then something else happened… The impression is that the command is still hesitating over whether or not Ukraine really needs these submarines. But it is high time to decide because there will soon be not a single naval officer left, who has the experience of submarine submersions, and the problem will disappear by itself. Maybe, they are waiting precisely for this in order to earn a penny or two on the submarine?

Or, maybe, the question is that these ships are hopelessly outdated and beyond any repairs? I was on board the frigate Sevastopol a year before it was decommissioned. This ship did not look like scrap metal at all – moreover, the Ukrainian senior naval officers I spoke to claimed that it would take just 7 million to repair the ship that met all the requirements of modern-day military equipment, which would extend her service life by at least 10 to 15 years. The same applied then to some other warships: they were fit to be refurbished and used for a long time. Now about the “obsoleteness” of 20-30-yeaqr-old ships: when a French destroyer arrived in Sevastopol on a courtesy call, this writer asked when she had been built. The answer was 1967. Naturally, the ship had been duly modernized over this time span, but who hindered doing the same to the Ukrainian ships?

In 2004, after the resignation of Yevhen Marchuk as minister of defense, the Yanukovych cabinet (which had already received a no-confidence vote in parliament!) gave “green light” to a very dubious, from a legal viewpoint, decision to write off 30 warships and auxiliary vessels, including the frigate Sevastopol, the corvette Iziaslav, and the missile boat Uman.

In general, very interesting things occurred. Vice-Admiral Volodymyr Bezkorovainy, former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Navy, believes that most of the ships which Ukraine received after the partition of the USSR Black Sea Fleet could have been repaired and used for defense purposes. In reality, large money was allotted for ship repairs at first, and then suddenly these ships were decommissioned and scrapped. Why? What for? The decision was made in Kyiv. “How can one check where the money went and whether it was used properly?” the vice-admiral asks. And he answers himself: “No way.” Isn’t it a moronic situation, when a supposedly well-repaired ship comes under a metal-cutting torch?

As a result, only one Ukrainian Navy ship, the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, is capable of performing long-endurance self-sufficient missions, while the two most serviceable corvettes can only reach as far as the Mediterranean. So it is only a pipedream to take part in, say, fighting sea pirates off the Horn of Africa, where dozens of Ukrainian citizens are taken hostage every year. All one can do is harangue on this from exalted podiums.

As for the Moskva-class 96-percent-finished cruiser Ukraina, she still remains berthed at the Mykolayiv shipyard. A ship of this type is capable of launching missiles to destroy sea and land targets within a radius of over 600 kilometers. Some experts think that this ship is obsolescent or that the state does not need it for military doctrine considerations. Conversely, other experts consider it necessary to finish the cruiser’s construction as soon as possible because its commission will establish an approximate parity between the Ukrainian and Russian fleets in the Clack Sea. Besides, Ukrainian shipyards are still unable to finish the construction of the frigate Baida Vyshnevetsky and the corvettes Luhansk and Lviv, although this requires as little money as the restoration of Baturyn. Are they obsolescent? Why not then refit them with more sophisticated electronic equipment, as other countries do?

Besides, a few years ago Poland offered Ukraine two operationally fit submarines, as it was going to replace them with newer types. The US Navy seems to have planned to hand over three Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to the Ukrainian Navy in late 2008 (Poland is the only new NATO member to receive two ships of this type), but everything just remained on paper. The available information says the Cabinet failed to find money for this, although it was a negligible amount compared to what Yulia Tymoshenko spent on her populist scheme to pay off a part of lost Soviet-time savings.

Also on paper remains so far the program of building Haiduk-class “invisible” corvettes, not to mention deploying several batteries of new-generation medium-range ship-to-ship missiles designed in Ukraine.


This writer is well aware that many will be prone to call him “militarist.” But it is a copybook maxim that if you do not want to feed your own army, you will feed a foreign one. I think this saying is also valid in the postmodern era (also an era of large-scale international terrorism) and also applies to the navy. And here is a short story for the most rabid pacifists. As is known, Ukraine has quite a viable, albeit small, fishing fleet. Some if its ships sail to the Atlantic and fish off the African coast. And some African countries like to engage in what can be called “institutional piracy:” they send a few patrol boats to intercept a fishing ship for the alleged crossing of the border and impound the vessel. They won’t let you go unless you pay a fine. You can, of course, seek legal redress at the International Court, but this takes too much time and effort. Polish or Estonian seiners are never attacked like this, for these countries are under the NATO “umbrella.” The Russians are not taken on too much either, for they still have a more or less strong ocean-going fleet. It is the Ukrainians who are usually at the receiving end. Things went so far that our government informally requested a NATO country a few years ago to help release a Ukrainian seiner somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea. They sent a frigate to the shores of the country that exercises “institutional piracy” and a court immediately ordered the Ukrainian sailors and ship to be released. But can we make such requests in every case? And it is shame pure and simple: we are talking about a “great European power” but have fewer means to curb an impertinent African dictator than Bulgaria or Rumania do. Is it not better to send, at least once, our own frigate to the area where the Ukrainians fish? To display the flag, so to speak. You say it is expensive? But will it be cheaper in the long run to protect the economic and humanitarian interests of our compatriots abroad? Just imagine the “comfortable” conditions that Ukrainian sailors have in the prisons of third-world countries with dictatorial regimes somewhere on the equator.

Yet, it is only one side of the matter. As for the other, here is what such a high-skilled expert as Vice-Admiral Bezkorovainy says: “Ukraine needs a navy that could defend its national interests. We can see a terrorist war gradually spreading all over the world. Tomorrow does not promise us anything good at sea, in air, or on land – it only arouses alarm, so the ongoing destruction of the navy is a decision that runs counter to our state’s interests. We need a navy that can fulfill the tasks assigned to it. It is defending Ukraine at sea in wartime and protecting Ukraine’s interests in the global ocean in peacetime. The navy should be built in accordance with these goals.”

Indeed, let us recall the political crisis in August 2008, during the Russian-Georgian military conflict, when President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree that forbade Russian ships to leave Sevastopol without Ukraine’s permission. The Russian Black Sea Fleet overtly ignored this decree, and Kyiv failed to comply with the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Georgia, whereby the Ukrainian territory cannot be used for any actions against Georgia. And what can ensure the fulfillment of the decree if the Russian cruiser Moskva is more powerful in terms of firing capacity than the Ukrainian Navy as a whole?

Naturally, a navy is an expensive pleasure. And, from a purely military viewpoint, many politicians and geopolitical analysts are greatly skeptical about it in the era of missiles, supersonic aircraft, and nuclear strike forces. Yet, practically all sea-bound countries with a population of at least 10 to 15 million do have navies of different sizes. And if it is a country populated with tens of millions of people, its navy is usually capable of performing missions not only in littoral waters but also in the world ocean. Whether this policy is a vestige of old times or, on the contrary, is prompted by the danger of global terrorism, it remains a fact that warships of various classes continue to go down shipyard slipways, and the ones that plow the seas are being modernized and refit with the most up-to-date armaments. And if the words of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Yushchenko that “the Ukrainian flag on each of our ships, whether military and civilian, must be a symbol of our might” is not just holiday blab, this raises a question: why have so many ships been scrapped and not a single new ship built to replace the written-off one in the years of Yushchenko’s presidency? Of course, all the blame can be ascribed to prime ministers: to Viktor Yanukovych, who takes a very peculiar attitude to defending Ukrainian statehood, or to Yulia Tymoshenko, who openly ignores the problems of this country’s defense capability and is reluctant to fund the Armed Forces even on a minimal scale. But they do not position themselves as true Ukrainian patriots whom national interests are above all – in deed, not in word.

…Once a Ukrainian government refused to establish a powerful military fleet in the Black Sea. It was in 1917. At the time, Black Sea Fleet ships and ground forces were spontaneously Ukrainized without any help from Kyiv which contrived not to notice the patriotic mood of sailors and officers. For example, in the fall of 1917 all the battleships of Vice-Admiral Andrii Pokrovsky’s brigade raised Ukrainian flags and set up Ukrainian councils. They formed a kurin (battalion) of volunteers who went to Kyiv to defend the Ukrainian government from the Bolsheviks. But… The subsequent events are common knowledge. What has been left of the then Ukrainian navy, as well as the Ukrainian state itself, is just reminiscences, a few pages in school manuals, and the never-ending rigmarole of modern-day alternative history freaks: what could there be if two plus two were four, as it is in the whole world, and not five, as it still is “down here?” Does Ukrainian history teach anybody in Ukraine?

P.S. The title is an allusion to the play The Destruction of a Squadron by the Soviet Ukrainian playwright Oleksandr Korniichuk – Ed.