Benson class Destroyers (1939-41)
Ukraine Військо́во-морські́ си́ли Збро́йних сил Украї́ни, ВМС ЗСУ (1991-2023) c120 ships
Personal note: For long i did not considered making a page about the Ukrainian Navy, partly for historical reasons, and even back in 2014 due to events unfolding there, notably because the site focused on the cold war and rarely ventured afterwards. However from 2022 given the current war in Ukraine, i thought it might be interesting to have a look. Moreover, a Navy that is actually engaged in combat in an asymetric mode, showing some early lessons about modern naval warfare, is always a plus.
A short bit about Ukrainian History
Long associated with the Russian sphere of Influence, the ancient land of the Scythians is now the second largest country in Europe. Already in antiquity the region was famous for its fertile plains, especially in Crimea, were ancient emporions (greek settlers) flourished in what became the Kingdom of Bosprorus and Chersonese, part of the Sarmatian Empire. It was the second largest provider of cereals after Egypt under the Roman Empire, and from the 6th century BC under Roman, and later Byzantine colonies. Goth, then Huns also settled in the region. It became the centre of Old Great Bulgaria and when Bulgar tribes migrated westwards notably, the Khazars settled there, just as the Sarmatians replaced the Scythians almost a millenia before.
Colonized by the Slavic Antes people, the Ilmen Slavs and Krivichs also dwelled there in the early medieval era, but there was no established kingdom, only separate pastoralist tribes. It’s the rise of the Kievan Rus’ which put this region politically on the map, thanks to former vikings settling on what became Kiev, a rich trade network on a river connecting the Baltic and black sea. The Golden Age of Kyiv (largest and most powerful state in Europe 10-11th AD) whereas Vladimir the Great (980–1015) introduced Christianity in these lands. The cross was featured ever since on national emblems. However this golden age was ended by Mongol Invasions in the 13th cent. BC.
Already the Kievan Rus had a sizeable fleet composed of Lodyas, brought by the Rus, and inspired by nordic trade ships, relatively small to be carried on land and at ease on rivers.
After a brief revival under Vladimir II Monomakh and his son Mstislav Kievan Rus disintegrated for good into separate principalities, paying tributes to the Cumans and Kipchaks.
The rest was a succession of foreign occupation, under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, Crimean Khanate, Ottoman Empire, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and at last Russian Empire.
If Ukraine had a prominent figure, these were the famous Cossacks, legendary horsemen, which fought wars in between Russian, Polish and Ottoman influences. The 1600s Cossack Hetmanate was a return of Ukrainian sovereignty but the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 1783, now called Novorossiya, sealed the fate of the country up to 1991. The country became a serie of semi-autonomous regions called successively the Southwestern Krai, Kharkov Governorate, and Chernigov Governorate. Ukrainian fought in WWI, troops fought on the Galician front. But western Ukrainian people situated between Austria-Hungary and Russia suffered much with villages regularly destroyed and Ukrainians participatied on both sides. Some 20,000 ended in Austrian concentration camps. The 1917 revolution was not accepted by the majority of the population, and the region became a center od operation and later last refuge for “white russians” during the civil war. The wartime era even saw a short lived independent state created by Ukrainian nationalists until the Bolsheviks occupied the region again. Under Stalin, Ukraine was sanctioned for its ambiguous past by the Holodomor, a clear-cut genocide.
In WW2 Ukraine was one objective of Operation Barbarossa, invaded by Army group South and axis co-belligerents, Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians and even Spanish troops. In 1942, Stalingrad was the gateway to Baku and rich petrol fields which Hitler needed in his war of attrition. The Germans hoped to return Galicia and Ukraine as a whole as a puppet state but brutality caused the population to gradually turn against the occupants. Only a fraction of Ukrainians joined the axis like the Ukrainian Liberation Army. About 4.5 to 7 million fought with the Red Army. Marshal Semyon Timoshenko was from this region. Postwar Ukraine was in dire state: 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages were destroyed and a famine crippled once again the ravaged lands until 1947. On the internaitonal sphere, the Ukrainian SSR was accepted by UN and later under Nikita Khrushchev Crimea was given to the Ukrainian SSR, despite being the host for the Russian Black sea fleet, as a gift.
Under him, Ukraine quickly recovered and soon reached high level of productions in all areas, especially food. Industry rebirth was accompanied by the construction of military plants and full integration of Ukrainian plants into the land army that was maintained during the cold war. Iconic models such as the T-64 were born here.
Apart the shadow of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, Ukraine economically resisted better than other states of the USSR, although still poor.
The fall of the latter through Belavezha Accords on 8 December 1991 saw the creation of a newly independent state of Ukraine. Outright independence was proclaimed on 24 August 1991, later approved by 92% of the Ukrainian electorate in the 1st December referendum and the country reorganized itsel under its new President, Leonid Kravchuk. Its achille heal however was Crimea, as well as its links with the Russian military in many areas, notably industrials. Agreement were necessary also due to the presence of numerous nuclear weapons withing its border.
At the same time until 1999 the country suffered from a 60% fall of GDP and hyperinflation. In 1996 was introduced a national currency the hryvnia, but economical situation did only improved slowly. Oligarchs soon took hold of everything of value and later Ukraine was hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, and after some recovery, the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, and worst of all, the invasion of 2021. And even though the fleet there was still in Russian Hands, agreements granted the new state a small navy “from the heap of the black sea fleet”.
The Ukrainian Navy since 1600
The Cossaks Navy
If the modern Ukrainian Navy dates back 1991, there were various navies operated by ruling powers in Ukraine, the firts of which being the Zaporizhian Cossack Fleet. A fleet of small reiveing boats operated by the Zaporizhian Sich Cossacks raided Ottoman settlements along the Black Sea coast. The typical vessel was called a chaika, itself derived from the Lodya. They met great successs, notably the sack of Trabzon. In 1615 a raid was done on Istanbul itself with perhaps 150 ships. The netx year, another Cossack fleet reached the Bosphorus. But a renewed Turkish fleet put an end to this raids in 1617. There was another raid on Istanbul on 1625 however, which this time forced the Sultan to temporarily flee the capital.
Cossacks positioned their ships in a way to have the sun always at their back, and their ships had a low profile, they were agile and small, offering little as cannons targets. Cossacks however considered their ships as platforms for boarding actions. They carried a wide variety of small arm, muskets, and attacked with grappling hooks, their famous curved sabre, several belt pistols and grenades. They usually tried to capture ships, not to sink them.
Ukrainian People’s Republic navy (1917–1921)
Pamiat Merkuria in 1917, the first Ukrainian Cruiser
The 1917 Russian Revolution saw a revolt on many Russian Imperial Navy’s Black Sea Fleet in the hands of ethnic Ukrainians. These ships were transferred to the newly formed “autonomous Ukrainian People’s Republic”. Mikhail Sablin, commander of the black sea fleet, even raised the colours of the Ukrainian National Republic, on 29 April 1918. However the Ukrainian government soon lost control over coastal territories.
The black sea fleet was under the “Tsentroflot” command, seeing much discussions between Ukrainian, Bolshevik, Menshevik, Social Revolutionaries and Anarchist to its possession. A collection of flags were hoisted hoisted and lowered over changes in the crew’s own political orientation. On 17 October 1917 2nd rank Captain Akimov became representative of the Central Council of Ukraine and a General Secretariat for Naval Affairs was created at Central Rada in Kyiv, then a ministry by January 1918 under D. Antonovich. The Ukrainian Navy Staff was led by Captain Jerzy Świrski. Blue-yellow flags were hoisted on the masts of the destroyer Zavidniy and Russian cruiser Pamiat Merkuria.
By 22 November 1917 the Black Sea Fleet battleship Imperator Aleksandr III was renamed Volya and joined the new navy as well as several ships and submarines. By December 1917 the Ukrainian Black Seas Fleet squadron also included the Pamiat Merkuria cruiser and three destroyers, participating in the evacuation of the 127th Infantry Division from Trabzon to Ukraine.
However by 29 December 1917 the Bolsheviks took over the fleet at gunpoint.
Volya, ex. Imperator Aleksander III, the most powerful capital ship of the short-lived Ukrainian Navy
Operation Faustschlag on Sevastopol by the Germans forced Admiral Sablin to negociate and cease hostilities, but terms were rejected and the advance continued. By April 1918 German-Ukrainian troops took back Crimea and by 29 April 1918, RaDM Sablin ordered to hoist Ukrainian national flags on all ships in Sevastopol, becoming the new CiC of the Ukrainian Navy. The old battleship Georgiy Pobedonosets became its floating HQ. Meanwhile the Bolshevik held ships were forced to be moved under orders by Centroflot to Novorossiysk. By 30 April 1918, Sablin, which trusted the Bolsheviks also sailed to Novorossiysk under the St. Andrew flag and a few ships while the greater part of the Ukrainian fleet remained in Sevastopol (30 destroyers and torpedo boats, 25 auxiliaries, 7 battleships, 15 submarines among others) under RaDM Admiral Myhaylo Ostrogradskiy.
However this fleet was captured by the Germans on 1 May 1918 Germans considering the Bolsheviks violated the peace agreement. On 17 June the fleet was reinforced by one dreadnought and 6 destroyers from Novorossiysk, also captured. Those in Novorossiysk were scuttled under Lenin’s command. By July–November 1918 the Germans retransferred ships under Ukrainian command, now under Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi.
Sevastopol in 1918
Between Odessa and Mykolaiv were also anchored 20 minesweepers, 7 small cruisers, one dreadnought, 30 auxiliaries. In Sevastopol two pre-dreadnoughts remained. By 18 July the Naval Ministry established new naval ensigns, rank flags but kept the old Russian jack and tried to make the old glory of the Black Sea Fleet properly Ukrainian. On 17 September Ukraine also received 17 U-boats from Germany to bosler the fleet.
By December 1918, after the German capitulation, the Entente fleet approached Sevastopol. Ukrainian Rear-admiral V. Klokhkovskyy asked to hoist Russian St. Andrew ensigns to reassure them. Still, the Entente captured the Black Sea Fleet and transferred ships to the Russian “White” forces. Marines corps however were constituted with Ukrainians under Kiev authority until 1921.
This ephemeral Ukrainian fleet was made of the bulk of the black sea fleet, existing From October 1917 to March 1918. It was even larger than the Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1914 with nine battleships, seven cruisers, 18 destroyers, 14 submarines, 16 patrol ships, 11 military transports and many other auxiliaries. All facilities and command structure were Ukrainian.
Some notablt came from the Baltic Fleet like the cruiser Krasnyi Krym, the the destroyer Ukraina and Gaidamak. But the core of the Sevastopol fleet comprised the recent dreanought battleships Volya and Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya as well as the old Georgii Pobedonosets used as HQ and barracks ship, the cruiser Pamiat Merkuria, destroyer Zorkiy and Zvonkiy.
Ukrainians in the black sea fleet (1922-1990)
Despite the fall not only of the Russian Whites but also of an independent republic, the new RKKA thought on how best to reconstitute the old Black sea fleet. For more check the interwar history of the Soviet Navy.
Full Nomenclature of the Ukrainian Navy