Russia took land and people when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. However, Russia captured 75 percent of Ukraine’s naval fleet, the majority of its helicopters, and the majority of the country’s ship repair capabilities in the process, with little attention.
The Ukrainian Navy had to start from scratch after the Sevastopol Naval Base was destroyed. Seventy percent of naval personnel deserted or were discharged, leaving the fleet with only one frigate – one that had been deployed at the time.
Since then, the US, UK, and other NATO allies have assisted the Black Sea state in rebuilding its fleet, as well as its land and special operations troops. This summer, the endeavor advanced even further by assisting the country in achieving interoperability with NATO forces.
According to Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, the support is aimed to show Russia that the West supports Ukraine and its national security interests.
The largest ship Ukraine sent to sea during the Sea Breeze 21 drill in the Black Sea was a Sea Guard vessel that is part of the State Border Guard Service, which is similar to the US Border Patrol. Coast Guard is a service of the United States Coast Guard. Two Ukrainian Navy vessels acted as aggressors, navigating past larger warships, indicating that the organization is still in its “mosquito fleet” phase.
In June 2020, the US also approved the sale of up to 16 Mk VI patrol boats, which are similar in size to the other patrol boat classes in Ukraine’s fleet and are around 26 meters long. These SAFE Boats International-built craft are used by the US Navy for riverine and coastal security tasks. That initial clearance is still subject to congressional approval.
Ukraine’s training requirements are twofold as it obtains new equipment: learning how to operate the ships, sensors, and weapons, as well as learning how to organize and execute maritime operations in accordance with NATO standards and best practices.
In terms of equipment, the US Coast Guard has been teaching Ukrainian sailors to operate and maintain the Island-class patrol boats. The Coast Guard has finished training the next three crews for the following three ships, according to Marzluff.
The Sea Breeze drill is part of a bigger plan to help Ukraine get access to larger NATO events and missions. “Having your own navy and operating independently is one thing, but as part of an alliance, which Ukraine desires to be a member of, there has to be that fundamental hand-in-hand interoperability aspect, and that’s the major objective of Sea Breeze,” Marzluff said.
“One of Ukraine’s stated ambitions is to establish a MIO/VBSS [maritime interdiction operations and visit, board, search, and seizure] squad capable of doing comparable operations. I believe they will easily win because there are so many countries with that experience that can share those approaches and then allow the Ukrainians to build up that competence, which arguably already exists. It simply needs to be assessed in order to receive certification,” Marzluff explained. At a marine day demonstration the next day, a Ukrainian VBSS team demonstrated its abilities to media and visitors.