Next to the Donbas search and rescue ship of the Ukrainian Navy, two modern Gyurza-M type small armored artillery boats, the Kremenchuk and the Lubny, are docked in the Mariupol port. With the giant Donbas in the background, they seem really tiny. We step aboard one of them, the Kremenchuk, to talk to its commander, Oleksandr Rehula.
In March 2014, four and a half years ago, Russian commandment gathered cadets of the Nakhimov Naval Academy in Sevastopol for a ceremony. Ukrainian flag was lowered. Russian one was lifted instead. There was, however, a group of young cadets who refused to silently obey what was going on. What they did? They spontaneously started singing Ukrainian national anthem in front of the occupiers. Video of their protest has gone viral.
Oleksandr Rehula was one of those cadets. He was 19 years old back then. Now as four years passed since he fled Crimea, a lot has changed. In this time, Oleksandr has practiced at a French frigate in the Mediterranean and returned to Ukraine to become a commander of a modern Gyurza-M type small armored artillery boat of Ukrainian own produce.
Now the 23-years-old commander tells us about his life, choices he made, about his crew and his boat. We start our conversation though with talking about the operation, that the Ukrainian Navy vessels Donbas and Korets have just completed, entering the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. It was the first time since the 2014 annexation that Ukrainian Navy vessels passed there. Small armored artillery boats Kremenchuk and Lubny have played a significant role in it. At the moment we speak, less than a day have passed since the operation, and Oleksandr seems still very excited when sharing with us details of it.
RUSSIANS MISSED UKRAINIAN BOATS IN THE PLAIN SIGHT
We were told that you have reached the very Kerch Strait with being even unnoticed by the Russians.
We came there completely unnoticed. They saw us at some point and were giving us some coordinates, but we did not respond, of course. We kept a "full silence" mode. At first, they had thought we were their own border guards' boats. We got lost then and reappeared in a different place. They only noticed us when we already reached the Donbas vessel. I have pushed away a Russian trawler from it. When we already took our positions for convoying the Donbas, it was only then that they noticed us and started asking: "Who are those guys? Where did they even appear from?" They really had not seen where we had come from. We had an advantage – it was dark, and we are difficult to spot visually. Even on radars. Together with my friend [second SAAB Lubny] we always travel in two. We've checked it before: it is enough for us to get away 1-2 miles, and we become invisible. One can only see the sea.
Because you are so small?
Yes, plus the geometry of the boat and its color. Only a very small spot is visible at a radar. Who knows what it is? Maybe a radar's noise? It's impossible to determine it properly.
Is it because of the special irregular geometry?
Yes, it's a special geometry of the boat, which absorbs radio waves.
What was the reaction of Russians, when they finally spotted you?
When I approached one trawler in the night, they started ringing combat alert. Because they only spotted me when I was very near. They started running around the deck in panic, thinking what to do – but I was already near them. Well, after I had spent there a day, they already did not interfere. They only tried to interfere near Mariupol later – I mean the situation with that Mangust [Russian border guards' patrol boat].
AN UNSUCCESSFULL ATTEMPT TO PROVOKE FIRE
Was it trying to intercept the group?
No, it was just approaching us very closely. We started surrounding it and pushing it away, towards our shore. Well, you saw the video – how they behaved. We started maneuvering and cutting it off the Donbas. Well, in the end, I think we didn't do anything too extraordinary.
Yes, but still – it was interfering, and if not for you, it'd be harder for the Donbas to reach the port.
I guess its task was not to interfere, but rather to provoke something.
Yes, fire. There is a notion in the international law, which is called "the zone of a vessel's self-defense." It's a distance which another navy vessel can't cross without permission. Would it come closer – we would follow the instruction. Which is: first warn that it is entering the zone of our self-defense. If it continues – fire in the air. If it still proceeds – fire ahead of its course. And only if it does not stop even in this case – fire at it. Practically speaking, after firing in the air, most of them run away already. In our case, we managed to avoid fire – and simply pushed it away.
Were you nervous in that moment?
I was confident in my crew and my boat. I've been commanding this boat since the very beginning, when it was just put in the water. I know what kind of vessel it is and what to expect of it. I also know the people, with whom we have spent more than a year in the sea. I have confidence in them.
How old were you when the annexation of Crimea was ongoing and together with other cadets you sang the Ukrainian anthem in Sevastopol?
And now you’re...
You had to flee Crimea back then even though you had lived there?
I am from Shepetivka, Khmelnytsky region. I had studied in Sevastopol since 2012 after entering the Nakhimov Naval Academy there. Later on, I had to finish my study in Odesa.
Since then you have also managed to go through a practice at a French frigate?
Yes, for almost three months I have been practicing at a French frigate. It has been very interesting there! There have been similar situations too. In the Mediterranean, when Russians have only started their active combat operations in Syria, we had many different cases. I think it was there that I learnt from the French Navy how to keep so calm in any emergency. There, they behave so incredibly calm and in a well-coordinated manner in any extraordinary situation!
You probably could not predict back when you sang the anthem in Sevastopol that four years later you will become a commander of a modern Ukrainian armored artillery boat?
No, of course, I couldn't. My first job after fleeing Crimea was a deputy commander of the Shostka vessel. It is a civil ship, a cable-laying vessel to be precise. It is installing equipment at the sea. It went to the sea maybe once a year. When I was proposed this seat here – I immediately agreed.
How did they choose you?
I don't know. I was proposed, they asked if I agree. I said, of course, I do! It wasn't easy at first. How old was I? I have only had experience at a civil ship. And here you have to simultaneously be everyone – an artillery officer, a mechanic – you have to know everything. It wasn't easy, but my crew helped me. It is difficult to be a commander. Even of such a small boat. However, it is a very useful experience for a further career growth.
Why is it difficult?
Well, at big vessels you have commanders of units. Each is responsible for his/her own unit. Here I also give some orders, especially on documentation, but I have to help the crew doing everything. We do everything together. Anything wrong with the artillery? All the crew goes and fixes it. Mechanic needs help? We all do it together too. A seaman works here at the level of a unit commander of a big vessel. For crewmembers it was also difficult at first, because they all came here after serving at big vessels. They had to study documentation. It was also difficult to get used to steering, because we did not know the boat initially. Now we’ve already travelled the sea, so we’ve learnt it already.
ARMORED BOATS DELIVERY: FROM ODESA TO AZOV BY A TRUCK
I was amazed that this boat could be transported from Odesa to the Azov Sea simply by a truck.
Actually, it was a bit of a difficult operation to transport it here. Not all spots we could pass. We had to take away wires at some places.
You couldn’t pass because of the boat's height you mean?
Yes, the full height here is 6.5 meters. Plus, the platform it is mounted on. Well, and the road from Kakhovka to Berdiansk was very bad. I remember driving and watching the boat shaking, and I was just holding my head in fear. I knew inside there is equipment which is very sensitive and precise and no one should shake it too much.
But was it a success at the end?
Yes, it was a success. We came here and immediately put it in the water. We took off everything we could before transporting - to lower the weight. So that we could at least lift it with two cranes.
I hear so much sympathy when you speak about your boat. Could you tell us, what are its advantages?
In the Azov Sea, for example, big vessels are not really useful. Some cruisers cannot really navigate here. And we have only one-meter draft. For example, we've been having drills with Turks recently. They could "destroy" only one boat of six. The other five – they could not spot. They only saw us when we began already "firing" at them, having shown the direction where we were located. A big advantage of this boat is that it can counter very well other boats of the same type, even the ones which are faster, like, for example, the Russian Mangust. Well, to be true, the Mangust is just a plastic toy. I remember it tried to intimidate our border guard patrol boat. Would it try to intimidate me – I would just drive it over and forget about it. Even with its speed – I don't know what it would do. Yes, it is fast, but what's then? Can it run away from a bullet? My combat modules work very fast. They turn so fast they can lead a helicopter in the flight and destroy it. Whatever speed it goes – it would take me three seconds to fire and target it. My cannon is very fast and very precise. It's more difficult though with big vessels. But we have encountered none of those yet. We can also work at terrestrial targets. We have various grenade-throwers. These two boats can destroy a checkpoint, for example. In the future we can also mount guided anti-tank missiles here, there is just no system of fire control at sea for them yet. One Ukrainian plant is now developing it for us.
The cannon stabilization system that is making rounds in YouTube now – it's installed at your boat too, right?
Yes, the same plant that developed the stabilizing system for Ukrainian APCs developed it. But our variant is even better. At the sea, we sway a lot all the time, because the boat is small, and its draft is small. But when you have a serious storm and the screen-meter shows heeling up to 35 degrees, my cannon is stabilized and we can fire. It can be a bit dispersed, but still one can fire.
Do Russian Mangusts have such stabilization?
There they have a person who does everything. A person with a heavy machinegun is standing there and pointing the gun. Actually, I think that person has to be awarded with a "hero" medal for standing there. I would be scared to be on his place. He is probably only bothered there with how not to fall rather than how to target something.
Plus, the person there is vulnerable, while here you all sit inside?
Yes, here everything is armored, windows are armored too. Look even at the camera that we use to point the cannon. I can see in three kilometers distance whether a person is smoking. I see it very well. The camera can also work in a thermographic mode. It's very useful to work at heat targets. In the night, vessels radiate a lot of heat.
So how did you manage to reach the Kerch Strait completely unnoticed?
To be true, I don't know myself. It seemed to me we did not invent much. When we just left Berdiansk, there was a [Russian] border guard patrol boat. We passed four miles from it, it should have noticed us. And it first seemed like it did – we saw on our radar that it first went towards us. But then it lost us somehow. It swirled around and went back up to Berdiansk. Well, de-facto, they would have had nothing to accuse us of. The sea is "joint use" as they say themselves. If they can approach Berdiansk up to three-miles close, why can't we? If it is a joint sea, let it be such then. We then can use it as we wish too. We'll see what they'll do now of course after our operation. I watched Russian TV. Well, they didn't say anything about the boats. But those of our colleagues who intercept talks of the other side in Donbas, they say that many Russians are now having big problems it seems. They're yelled at. How come could they miss two boats just in the plain sight in front of them?
We've just visited Ukrainian seals not far from here at terrestrial positions in Donbas, and they say they are very proud of you, and watching this operation lifted their spirits.
Yes, there had been a lot of talk about our boats previously. They were saying – hey, guys, you need a big vessel, not this small boat. But you saw the result yesterday. Just two boats, let be not that fast, can show a good capability at the sea. Yes, we really lack speed. If we would also have speed here, I don't know what we could do here in the Azov Sea. We could dominate with these two boats however we would want.
Experts now say that creating a "Mosquito fleet" of small boats that can quickly appear and disappear may be a good option for Ukraine in the current state of affairs with its fleet. What do you make of it?
Look, of course, if there were big targets here – our two boats would be destroyed quickly, two crews would be lost. Obviously, there is no war without losses. Of course, one needs missile boats here as well. To be able to work from a distance of a few kilometers. I've studied history. When the "Desert Storm" began, Americans deployed an aircraft carrier group to the shores of Iraq. Imagine yourself what such group is. It's not only the carrier itself, but also at least two destroyers, three frigates, minimum two submarines and two supply vessels. Some boats, a bit bigger than mine, which had some guided missiles (like our anti-tank missiles, but a bit bigger in caliber), had managed to scare off this entire group. They approached it, fired at it, got back, refueled, got more missiles, fired few more times. In result – until American small boats appeared there, the entire group had to leave. By telling this I mean that a small boat can show good capability. Of course, we don’t mention what happens to it next. And also, human factor can play its role too. You know, I tell my crew when they tell me "Look, Russians have missiles, big calibers etc." I tell them – believe me, there is also a same human being in control. Who probably even sleeps there now at the control desk. And doesn't see anything. Human factor can play a role there as well as it can play a role here. It all depends on reaction.
KIDS HAVE GROWN UP
When you were enrolled to the Naval Academy in Sevastopol in 2012 you could probably hardly predict the current situation, that there will be combat operations like here in the Azov Sea?
Maybe somewhere deep in my heart I could realize that such a situation is possible. But I knew what I had chosen. My father served for 27 years in the military. He graduated back in his days from a navy academy too. But he, however, did not become a sailor, he served in a different type of forces. Yes, initially he tried to change my mind. "Think well," "think again," "maybe you don't need it" – he was telling me all the time. I even first entered the National Aviation University. But then I thought – "Hey, you wanted to become a sailor, then you have to go for it no matter what!" To be true, I couldn't predict the situation will be as tense as it is now. Even in 2013, when it all just started, I couldn't predict that everything will change that drastically and we will have to flee to Odesa. I didn't also think that so many of my friends will remain there. Most of them were from Western Ukraine, just as me. They stayed there. The Crimeans, on the other hand, had fled.
Have you ever regretted your choice?
No, not at all. However loud this may sound, but one has to stand up for his/her own words. And of course, I have home here, family, my father is in the military. How would it be possible for me to be on that side while he would be on this side? I have many relatives in Russia. Only my mother is from Ukraine originally. Russian relatives were telling me back then – "Hey, Sasha, c'mon, we'll help you with everything, come here and you will be fine." I told them, "No, thanks." I have also never regretted coming here to the Azov Sea from Odesa. I can gain combat experience here. It would later be helpful even if I go to a big vessel to serve. We had some scary situations in Odesa too, but still nothing of a kind that we saw yesterday here, with such a direct contact. My friend – I trust him fully. We are always together and know what to expect from each other.
And you were both there in Sevastopol, when singing the anthem?
Yes, all of us. It was just not all of us that were filmed in the video.
Sorry, maybe it's a stupid question, but how come? Why did those youngsters decide to sing the Ukrainian anthem at that moment of annexation?
As far as I remember, it was all spontaneously decided. No one planned anything. We acted on impulse. No one persuaded us. On the contrary, commanders shouted at us: "Hide so that no one sees you!" And our commanders who have already defected to the other side, they were very scared that we would tear down the Russian flag. Russian commanders were so many around those days. They were trying to persuade us: "Let's serve for Russia's benefit, we will pay you thousand dollars!" Well, those who remained there, received that thousand dollars. Once.
But officers are better-off there? Honestly speaking?
Well, honestly speaking, yes. Better-off. Salaries, flats, material status are better there. Here it isn't yet in order.
But it was not an argument, neither for you nor for others who refused to defect?
Well, they promised a lot. For example, our coy commander was a Crimean Tatar. And they promised that he will remain serving in Sevastopol. He did remain there, yes, for a few months. Then he was deployed to the Far East of Russia.
Is your father proud of you? That you've become a SAAB commander?
My father himself had a dream to serve in the navy. But somehow it did not materialize. Yes, probably, he is.
Or is he more nervous about you than proud?
I don't know, probably. He himself has been through combats in Eastern Ukraine. He knows what it means. He calls me and says "Tell me, how are you? Ah, ok, I got it!" You don't need to "code" it to get on with him. My mother is nervous, of course. Father always tells me: "Tell me everything, I will understand. I will find what to tell mom."
They got to know about this operation by result?
Well, this operation – I don't know how secret it was that we would participate. We had only thought it will be earlier that we would depart. We understood it very well – who else except us, can meet them [Donbas and Korets vessels] there? Who if not us? At first, I remember we were thinking – okay, they're mocking us when they say "Hey guys, would you also pass under the Kerch bridge?" When we approached it yesterday – I thought "Okay, keep calm boy, now we are going to cross it." I had just called my parents and told them in prior that I will be off network for a few days, so that they would not be nervous. Because Russians locate everything very quick. We had switched off all our cellphones. Because they surely have our numbers. Though in the "flight" mode they couldn't see us. As practice showed, they did not spot us at all. I remember last year there were exercises. I remember how Americans laughed at us when we started dragging our wires. In result, our stations had knocked off air Americans, Polish guys, and even our own guys. No one had any connection, but we did. These boats here have such stations as well.
THE SEA HAS ALWAYS BEEN, IS NOW AND WILL BE OURS
As a commander of a small armored artillery boat in the Azov Sea, what could you tell Ukrainians that are reading this interview?
We will not let Russians make the Azov Sea their lake! This sea has always been, is now and will be ours. We will see what happens next. Maybe we will go to Crimea at some point. To take it back. Well, I just want to assure Ukrainians that everything will be fine. Our country will rise. And everything will be fine.
Heorhii Tykhyi, Kyiv
Photo credit: Markiyan Lyseiko