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Ukraine: Navy Troubled By Lack Of Funds, Relations With Russia

Kyiv, 12 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Ten days ago the once mighty Black Sea Fleet, in existence for 302 years, celebrated Russian Navy Day. Overflown by helicopters and strike aircraft, a massive procession of cruisers and frigates thundered out salutes for assembled Sevastopol guests, then steamed to sea for high-speed maneuvers.

On the same day Ukraine's fledgling navy celebrated its second birthday with sailor tug-of-wars and inter-ship soccer matches.

Undoubtedly, a naval tradition takes time to develop. "But without any question, our main problem is shortage of funding," Nikolai Savchenko, Ukraine Black Sea Naval Forces spokesman told RFE/RL. "The government simply does not have the resources to support even a minimum of operations."

Which was why on Ukraine Navy Day not one of Ukraine's 44 major combat vessels budged from their berths. Its 10,000 uniformed personnel and another 10,000 civilians mostly in shore side installations were paid in July on time, but June paychecks remain outstanding. Aside from NATO-funded maneuvers, most Ukrainian vessels have not moved from dock in 1998.

The Jane's Navy International said only a part of the Ukrainian Navy -- 44 fighting ships, 80 auxiliary vessels and 60 helicopters and airplanes -- is battle ready. But it also said even this is more for showing the flag than serving military purpose.

The Ukrainian naval command deploys maritime aviation, coastal rocket and artillery troops, marines, special assault units, and logistic support troops. Most are at cadre strength with little more than personnel and rusting equipment to contribute to national maritime combat readiness.

500 small vessels survive on the "patronage" of chronically cash-strapped riverside and seaside municipalities.

Only two Ukrainian ships, the Slavutych and the escort ship Hetman Sahaidachny, have regularly sailed the Black Sea this year. Although listed as combat ready, both are configured and crewed not to defend Ukraine's shores but to show its blue and yellow banner abroad, especially when Ukrainian participation is required in the NATO Partnership for Peace exercises like Sea Breeze, Cooperative Partner, Cooperative Osprey and Fairway of Peace.

Rear Admiral Mykhailo Yezhel, Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister and Navy Commander listed the single firing of a cruise missile and the graduation of the country's first batch of naval cadets as Ukraine's biggest 1998 naval achievements. "We are establishing a strong foundation," he said. "We are making our first steps."

These are small steps, towards a very limited goal. "Our mission is control of our national shores and waters in economic terms," Savchenko said. "Practically that means stopping smuggling...and illegal immigration...We are neither prepared nor preparing for war."

Corvettes and smaller vessels predominate. By 2005 the largest vessel in the fleet will be an anti-submarine frigate, and if everything works out by that time Kyiv plans deployment of some form of coastal submarine as well.

But for that to happen, the Russian parliament has to approve a recent Ukraine-Russia treaty finalizing the split-up of the Black Sea fleet. Signed with great fanfare over a year ago, the agreement has moldered.

"One cannot say that the Russian side has been in a hurry to implement the agreement," Savchenko said. "It seems that the policy has been to let the status quo dictate events."

In the case of Sevastopol, that has meant all the most powerful vessels like guided missile cruisers and attack submarines remaining in Russian possession.

In a recently published book, Anatomy of an Undeclared War, Savchenko argues that Russian Black Sea Fleet officers worked closely with Crimean nationalists and separatists over the last five years to return the strategic Crimean peninsula to Russian control, and at a minimum keep the Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol Russian.

Last year the Kyiv government replaced separatist local Crimean officials with men supportive of Ukrainian control of the region.

But until the status of Sevastopol is settled and the rent money from the Russian fleet begins entering Ukrainian state coffers, the Ukrainian navy appears likely to stay as it is: small and simple.

"The government is in great part depending on rent money from Sevastopol to resolve financing for the Ukrainian fleet," Savchenko said. "And as long as the agreement hangs in the air, our navy will have very little money with which to operate."