At the end of September, the Ukrainian Navy under Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff’s command has conducted a risky and successful naval operation. Two Ukrainian vessels, the Donbas search and rescue ship and the Korets sea tug departed from Odesa at the Black Sea, went around the occupied Crimea, passed the Kerch Strait under the newly-built bridge and entered the Sea of Azov. Their move has come out of the blue for Russians, who currently illegally occupy Crimea after annexing it in 2014 from Ukraine, and de-facto control waters around it, including the Kerch Strait. Russian commandment’s unpreparedness has been visible with panic reactions that accompanied the Ukrainian naval vessels move. The Donbas and the Korets have been followed by at least 13 Russian vessels, Russian aircraft flew dangerously low over them. We visited the Donbas, already docked in Mariupol, to talk to the commander of the operation - deputy head of the staff of the maritime commandment of the Ukrainian Navy, Captain 1st rank Dmytro Kovalenko.
Kovalenko had commanded Ukraine’s big landing craft Kostiantyn Olshansky up until March 2014, when it was taken over by Russians in the course of their illegal occupation of Crimea. During the annexation, Moscow has been persuading Ukrainian officers to defect to its side by promising them flats, payments etc. For Kovalenko though his officer’s oath valued more than any money and property. He refused to defect and fled to mainland Ukraine – having left behind all he had, including property.
Four and a half years later radio waves near Kerch were interrupted with a message: “Good morning! I am a Ukrainian navy vessel A830. We plan to enter the 12-mile zone to pass the Kerch Strait into the Azov Sea…” – That was how the Korets sea tug notified Russians of Ukrainian Navy vessels approaching the Kerch bridge.
ONE DOES NOT “ASK” IN OWN WATERS
Why did you choose the word "plan" for the message?
We deliberately said "We plan." Why would we need to "request" or "ask" for it? Well, we are obliged to warn - whoever is on the other side - that we are approaching. They provided us with a maritime pilot. But they charged us nothing for it - they themselves told us: "No port fees are charged."
But the common way to address is "we are requesting your permission to pass," isn’t it?
Well, yes, that’s how it is written down in both our and their maritime rules. But we were "maneuvering" here. It’s a kind of naval diplomacy.
WEAPONS WERE LOADED
I see you commenting it all so calmly, but wasn't the situation there nervous?
Well, was it? You can't run away from your fate. If they’d kill me - so would it be. They could do so back in Crimea in 2014.
Were you preparing for a combat that may have begun?
Of course. Combat groups, machineguns, everything has been loaded. Two fully equipped people stood there demonstratively. So that they would see. All the rest, fully equipped too, were ready to jump out any minute. We covered ourselves fully with masking nets to hide movements, we unfolded the fire hoses to water them away would they decide to climb the docks. Because, you know, they can climb without firing a shot. And we can only shoot in response. But would they try to climb - I’d like to look at them. Eight kilograms of water stream pressure can wash anyone off the dock easily.
UKRAINIAN "INVISIBLE" BOATS
Some military experts say that naval forces are currently Ukraine's weakest defense component. Would you agree?
Well, I do. There are problems if we put it straight. Lack of vessels, I mean! On the other hand, - let me give you a simple example. Two SAABs [Ukraine’s modern small armored artillery boats “Gyurza-M” that were deployed in the Sea of Azov a few weeks ago] have been deployed to the Azov Sea. No one paid tactical attention to this event. They said - it’s just a show-off, to demonstrate that Ukraine boosts its presence, but nothing more. Now let’s look at our yesterday’s situation. Russians could not spot SAABs! I can tell you sincerely - I myself have identified SAABs, I marked them on the map because I had known their coordinates. But visually - I could only hardly see them. And Russians have missed them out completely. They just missed them out. When the dawn came, one could only guess how deep was Russian surprise and which scandal they later had there. What SAABs have been doing there since? They stopped short of running over Russian border guards' boats - you probably saw that famous video with the Russian Mangust. That’s it! It occurs that two SAABs solve many problems! When that Mangust started speeding near us yesterday, our two SAABs immediately went to intercept him, and he dropped his plans - his nerves are not made of steel at the end of the day.
Was it trying to intercept your course?
It was approaching us.
Well, on the other hand, they're just small artillery boats…
Well, there are many opinions regarding these SAABs. We have our own views. At the end, it’s us who exploit them. There are some issues with them, but the cold fact is that there is a result. You can see this result yesterday, a very visible one. Had Russian boats just started speeding - one which jumped out from an ambush behind our rear, one that tried to cut off our course - our SAABs have immediately solved the problem. Would at least four more SAABs be deployed, it would have resulted in a totally different situation already.
Well, a few dozens.
RUSSIANS ARE NOT AS STRONG AS THEY BOAST
So what they call "a mosquito fleet" would work fine for Ukraine, you think?
In the Azov Sea? Surely, it would. The Neptun will also be deployed at some point [modern anti-vessel missile complex of Ukrainian own produce that has recently been successfully tested] and then the balance will shift in Azov.
It was already tested, right? And tests were successful?
Yes, we took part in those tests. The mere deployment of this missile complex will provide a significant deterrence against Russia.
Do I get it right, that a possible landing of Russians at the coast is currently the most dangerous scenario?
I can tell you as a former commander of a landing craft. It is very difficult. I doubt that Russians currently have enough forces in Azov sea to conduct a landing operation.
The geography of the sea makes it difficult, this sea’s physical and geographical parameters. If they’d decide to conduct a landing with big landing crafts, they would have to enter the zone of artillery targeting. And such craft during a landing becomes a target. Artillery force here is powerful. Calibers we have are significant. So it isn’t all that easy for them. For half a year I have been the responsible commander for anti-landing defense here. Believe me, we have forces, we have reserves, we are capable.
THEY GET SCARED, THEY STEP BACK, THEY CHANGE THEIR COURSE
Experts say the Azov Sea is a tinderbox currently, with one shot being able to provoke a major escalation. Do you feel this tension?
Well, I doubt one shot could. It’s a normal work here. We have the war ongoing for four years already. It’s grinding on just right here, not far from where we speak. There is no need to be afraid! We should go for the kill! Then they get scared, they step back, they change their course.
What a Ukrainian Navy staff deputy commander would like to tell the Ukrainian society?
Everything will be alright. We do our jobs. With no loud slogans needed
Heorhii Tykhyi, Mariupol
Photo credit: Markiyan Lyseiko