The losses the Ukrainian Navy has sustained as a result of two occupations make it unique amongst 21st Century navies. The great navies of the World, since 1945, have undergone only gradual transition to more modern and capable classes of warship, with the tragic loss of units and crew being an exceptionally rare occurrence. By contrast, the Navy of Ukraine lost its headquarters, two major bases, and 75% of its fleet during the Russian Annexation of Crimea, 2014. In the current 2022 Russian War, it has already lost many of the remaining units. This post will provide a brief summary of the warships of Ukraine, and what happened to them. For a ship-by-ship accounting of the fleet, please see our newly-released pages.
In the heady days following Ukraine’s Independence Day, 24 August 1991, the new navy was envisioned as a modern, well-rounded regional force, able to project naval presence in the Black Sea, with a mix of frigates, submarines, and corvettes. It was never intended to compete with the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which it had peacefully been created out of. January 1992 negotiations between presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine even agreed to an equitable split of the fleet. The first Ukrainian warship in the modern era was the Petya class light frigate SKR-112, whose crew and senior officer, Captain Mykola Zhybarev, declared their allegiance to the new state on 21 July 1992, before leaving the Russian base at Sevastopol for Odessa, under the real threat of destruction. The transfer of units, assets, and bases was established in a series of international agreements during the mid-1990s. It was a painful and drawn out separation, complicated by Ukraine granting the Russian fleet a lease to continue using facilities on the Crimean Peninsula, including major port facilities at Sevastopol. The terms for the 20-year lease would have expired in 2017.
Like many of the former Soviet Republics, Warsaw Pact countries, and those that had been in the orbit of the USSR, Ukraine inherited a mixed bag of legacy Soviet warships and vessels from the old KGB Border Guard; some units were relatively modern or in decent material condition, but quite a few were worn-out.* Of the four guided missile frigates, two older Krivak II class were beyond all economical repair, and were promptly decommissioned. Of four submarines, only one elderly Foxtrot class submarine had any prospect of joining the fleet. A variety of missile corvettes of the Grisha and Tarantul classes were transferred along with Pauk class patrol boats.
Some remarkable ships were building at the 61 Communards shipyard at Mykolaiv at the very twilight of the Soviet empire: A Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier, a large depot ship for nuclear submarines, and a Slava-class cruiser.** The transfer of ownership of the gargantuan facility left Ukrainian governments struggling with a way forward for disposing of these white elephants. For a time, work resumed on the massive 610-foot long, 11,500 ton cruiser, which was to have been named Ukrayina. It received a ship’s badge and a crew was even assigned to prepare for entry into service.
Other project on the ways at Mykolaiv included what became the flagship, a Krivak III class frigate originally intended to join the other similar ships in KGB/FSB border guard service. A Grisha V class corvette, Ternopil, was eventually completed in 2003.
The years after 2000 have been difficult ones for the Ukrainian Navy, as major procurement of new surface units to replace the aging Soviet ships has mostly not advanced, as the navy has been under-funded and had trouble retaining personnel. The relationship with Russia, and most immediately, the Black Sea Fleet, also deteriorated. Vladimir Putin’s regime, during the early 2000s, began stoking the flames of separatism in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and worse still, questioning the very existence of Ukraine as a separate entity. Because of the lease of the port facilities, there was little separation from Russian forces as Putin’s rhetoric ratchetted up.
The February 2014 Annexation of Crimea by Russia was almost the end of an independent Ukrainian Navy. All ships in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s main naval base, were immobilized, blockaded, and seized. The headquarters and the main docking area for the navy was captured, and other ships in Strilets’ka Bay were cut off, blockaded, and eventually also seized. Some senior officers defected to the Russian fleet, and the loyalties of the rank-and-file was also divided. Fortuitously, the flagship, Hetman Sahaidachny, was participating in international anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia, and returned to Odessa, which became the new headquarters.
The Southern Naval Base on Lake Donuzlav was also bottled up, when the Russians sank a retired cruiser, Ochakov (originally built at Mykolaiv), and other small vessels across the narrow entrance to the lake. Despite efforts to escape, this entire force was seized by Crimean separatists.
Today, only the rusted hulk of the Ochakov remains near the former base, awaiting scrapping. The loss of both landing ships, the minesweepers, almost the entire force of Grisha corvettes, and the entire facility was a severe blow. Some ships were returned later, but these have mostly consisted of older ships.
The Russians came up with excuses not to return the updated Grisha corvettes, any of the minesweepers, the larger, more modern Ropucha-class landing ship, the single submarine, the intelligence vessels. Some of these remain interned. The landing ship Konstantin Olshansky U-402 appears to have been repainted to Russian Navy colours and given a new pennant number, and may have been used to ferry troops and vehicles to Syria.
Tragically, for the Ukrainian Navy, the Annexation has proven to be only the first costly maneuvers in a sustained Russian effort. During the 2022 Russian invasion/occupation, Russian forces have again seized many of the ships they had already returned to Ukraine after the last seizure. If reports of the aftermath of the Battle of Berdiansk February 28th, 2022, are accurate, many naval units there were captured.
Consider for a moment the bizarre careers of several ships, including the Grisha class Vinnytsia U-206, the landing ship Yuri Olefirenko U-401, and the small minesweeper Henichesk. These vessels all started as units of the navy or border guard of the Soviet Union, before mid-1990s transfer to the Ukrainian Navy. They were then seized during February 2014 in Sevastopol or the Southern Naval Base, before being released to Ukraine, where they served a further 8 years before again being captured by Russian forces in the present War. We hope that Ukraine emerges from this terrible war intact, and that, on the naval side, it is able to ditch the Russian relics and finally receives the kind of agile, light, hard-hitting, missile-equipped forces it needs to protect its sovereignty from the Russian Black Sea Fleet. We also hope that the fleet is able to participate in multi-lateral exercises and operations outside of the Black Sea, bringing the Ukrainian navy in to close interoperability with international allies.
*For navies that started out with similar fleets, see Poland, Romania, Vietnam. The most complete list of these types is found under Russia.
**The Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier wound up serving in China, which we explored elsewhere. The other two ships remain uncompleted at Mykolaiv, with the Slava class cruiser having been intended to join the Ukrainian Navy until the idea was shelved in the late 1990s. Some of the later ideas were to complete it for the Russians, to join the other units of the class, or modify it to suit Brazilian needs.