Ukraine’s navy barely recovering from its near-death experience
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navy’s headquarters and its commander Serhiy Haiduk that the navy is still following an outdated course.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.