Ukraine’s navy barely re­cov­er­ing from its near-death ex­pe­ri­ence

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY OLEG SUKHOV [email protected]

ODESA, Ukraine – When Odesa Oblast Gover­nor Mikheil Saakashvil­i vis­ited the Ukrainian navy’s head­quar­ters in Odesa on June 14, the com­man­der set the ta­ble, and there was joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion with mu­sic, chil­dren in at­ten­dance and multi-col­ored bal­loons.

Ukraine’s flag­ship frigate, the Het­man Sa­haidachny, was proudly dis­played, while all the navy’s rusty old ships were hid­den from view.

“But af­ter that the fairy­tale ended,” Natalia Zeinalova, a vol­un­teer who works with the gov­ern­ment to shape up the Navy, told the Kyiv Post. “It was like when all the tinsel is gone af­ter New Year’s Day.”

Be­hind this glitzy façade is a naval force with ex­tremely ob­so­lete equip­ment and a lead­er­ship with a Soviet mind­set that re­sists cre­at­ing a more ef­fi­cient and Western-ori­ented navy, crit­ics ar­gue. Such re­form is des­per­ately needed, given that the Ukrainian navy was dealt a near-death blow by Rus­sia’s seizure of many of its ships dur­ing the Krem­lin’s in­va­sion and an­nex­a­tion of Crimea last year.

Vla­dyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the armed forces’ Gen­eral Staff, de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions against the

navy’s head­quar­ters and its com­man­der Ser­hiy Haiduk that the navy is still fol­low­ing an out­dated course. “Ad­mi­ral Haiduk is act­ing in the frame­work of the gen­eral strat­egy for the armed forces’ de­vel­op­ment,” Seleznyov told the Kyiv Post by phone.

But Zeinalova claimed the navy’s head­quar­ters was hid­ing the real sit­u­a­tion. “There’s a lot of show­ing off and claims that ev­ery­thing is al­right,” she said.

She com­pared Haiduk to the anec­do­tal chief of a Soviet col­lec­tive farm who bor­rows pigs from a nearby farm to show his su­pe­ri­ors that his pigsty is in good shape.

De­spite all the fanfare over Ukraine’s prized flag­ship, the coun­try’s other war­ships are in aw­ful con­di­tion.

Some of the ob­so­lete ships should long ago have been re­placed with smaller but more mod­ern ones ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out the same func­tions, Zeinalova ar­gues. How­ever, the navy’s com­mand wants both to get smaller, more mod­ern ships, and keep the old ones as well. “The more ships, the more ad­mi­ral jobs,” she said.

The way gov­ern­ment funds are spent on re­pair­ing old ships is also un­clear. One con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion was to send the Vin­nyt­sya, a corvette, to Kyiv’s Lenin­ska Kuznya ship­yard to be re­paired for Hr 1.3 bil­lion.

Zeinalova be­lieves this de­ci­sion was un­jus­ti­fied, say­ing that the ship was so ob­so­lete that it would have been bet­ter to send it to the break­ers’ yard. Haiduk’s mo­ti­va­tion was to please Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko, who owns the ship­yard, she ar­gues. Seleznyov dis­missed the ac­cu­sa­tions.

Haiduk has also not signed a strat­egy on naval re­form drafted by the mil­i­tary, vol­un­teers and for­eign ex­perts that has the ap­proval of the De­fense Min­istry and pres­i­dent, Zeinalova said.

Mea­sures in­clude cut­ting staff, in­creas­ing wages, bring­ing the navy’s man­age­ment sys­tem and naval ed­u­ca­tion in line with Western stan­dards, free­ing up funds by in­creas­ing spend­ing ef­fi­ciency, and in­tro­duc­ing more trans­par­ent pro­cure­ment prac­tices.

The cur­rent sys­tem is anachro­nis­tic, and a Soviet men­tal­ity is deeply en­trenched in the navy’s lead­er­ship, crit­ics say.

“The armed forces’ man­age­ment sys­tem is still based on the prin­ci­ples of the Soviet Union, which had a very large mil­i­tary,” An­driy Ryzhenko, a deputy com­man­der of the Ukrainian navy for Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion, who drafted part of the re­form strat­egy, told the Kyiv Post.

The Swedish navy’s head­quar- ters has 35 per­son­nel, and they do the same work as 400 peo­ple in the Ukrainian Navy, he added.

And de­spite the fact that NATO is aid­ing Ukraine, the navy’s top brass still per­ceive it as an en­emy, Zeinalova ar­gues.

Another en­dur­ing Soviet trait is a dis­re­gard for hu­man lives and hu­man dig­nity, she said.

“When peo­ple are treated as garbage, when you can fire a per­son for crit­i­cism, it’s the worst thing,” Zeinalova said. “When will a ser­vice­man be re­spected? When his com­man­der takes care of his life as if he were his fam­ily.”

The Navy lead­er­ship also views “vol­un­teers as a threat now,” Zeinalova said.

Given the Soviet men­tal­ity, pro-Rus­sian sen­ti­ment is still rife, crit­ics ar­gue.

Olek­siy Kise­lyov, a Ukrainian Navy cap­tain and Euro­Maidan ac­tivist, painted such a pic­ture in his blog in April. He said that dur­ing the Euro­Maidan Revo­lu­tion the Ukrainian Navy’s lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing both those who later be­trayed Ukraine and some of those who con­tin­ued serv­ing it, were against the pro-Western protests and were ex­plic­itly pro-Rus­sian.

An­driy Ur­sul, a deputy com­mand- er of the navy, was a mem­ber of the pro-Rus­sian Sev­astopol Naval Assem­bly, and pic­tures of him car­ry­ing the Rus­sian Navy en­sign have been pub­lished by var­i­ous media. This did not pre­vent him from re­main­ing a deputy com­man­der of the Ukrainian Navy af­ter Crimea’s an­nex­a­tion.

More­over, there has been no in­ves­ti­ga­tion of cases of cow­ardice or trea­son among top naval of­fi­cers dur­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, Zeinalova said.

Nor has any­one been given any medals for hero­ism dur­ing the an­nex­a­tion.

In March the crew of the Cherkasy ship held out for two weeks with­out food and wa­ter in Donu­zlava Lake in Crimea and sang the War­riors of Light, the unof­fi­cial an­them of the Euro­Maidan Revo­lu­tion, but their feat did not get any recog­ni­tion, she said.

Zeinalova ar­gues that there are many pa­tri­otic of­fi­cers in the lower and mid­dle ranks who have not been pro­moted and are sub­or­di­nate to a lead­er­ship that “has no de­sire to change what­so­ever, and is afraid of these changes.”

Naval head­quar­ters is sab­o­tag­ing Ryzhenko’s re­form ef­forts, Zeinalova said. Ryzhenko, who stud­ied at the U.S. Naval War Col­lege, told the Kyiv Post that his po­si­tion of a deputy com­man­der for Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion had not been in­cluded in the next ros­ter of per­son­nel, which starts in Oc­to­ber.

Among other ex­am­ples of al­leged sabotage, Zeinalova men­tioned that the Swedish Navy had in­vited Ukrainian of­fi­cers to visit its head­quar­ters, but Haiduk hadn’t let them go, claim­ing that they should not go there dur­ing a war.

In a sim­i­lar case, Italy has pro­posed to train Ukrainian naval cadets, but Haiduk has not au­tho­rized the pro­gram, she said.

The navy’s head­quar­ters and the gen­eral staff could not im­me­di­ately com­ment on Zeinalova’s ac­cu­sa­tions about the Swedish Navy and cadets.

Ukraini­ans per­form dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tion of Navy Day in Odesa on July 5. (UNIAN)

Many Ukrainian war­ships were seized by Rus­sia dur­ing its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in March 2014, when most of the Ukrainian navy’s per­son­nel ei­ther quit or joined the in­vaders.

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