Russia has reportedly sunk three of its own ships to block Ukrainian navy vessels into a lake off the Black Sea, Ukranian officers say, highlighting Moscow’s determination to wear down the morale of Kiev’s forces in Crimea.
The Ochakov — a Soviet-era warship decommissioned in 2011 and set to be sold for scrap — was towed to the entrance to Lake Donuzlav on Crimea’s western coast from the Russian base at Sevastopol on Thursday and blown up.
It capsized and, along with two smaller Russian vessels, is now blocking the narrow gap between two spits of land, its hull beaten by rough Black Sea waves.
Ukraine’s navy has limited resources and suffered a major blow last week when its chief Denis Berezovsky switched allegiance to the pro-Russian Crimean authorities and a new chief was appointed.
But officers at a base near where the Russians sank the ship have no doubt what the Russians were trying to do and insist they will not be shaken by the tactics.
“It is blocked so we cannot get out,” said Capt. Viktor Shmyganovsky, second-in-command at the base in Novoozerne, one of the four biggest in Crimea.
“If it wasn’t blocked, we could have taken our ships to Odessa and it would stop them being seized by Russian forces. We would be more powerful in alliance with ships in Odessa.”
Ukraine’s navy headquarters is in Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was founded under Imperial Russia 230 years ago.
Odessa, further round the coast into Ukraine and the country’s largest port, offers a safer option amid the current military situation in Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine.
Officers at the Novoozerne base declined to confirm how many Ukrainian ships were currently in Lake Donuzlav, while hinting at submarine capability.
But Ukraine’s navy is around a tenth of the size of Russia’s and suffers from “inadequate finances”, according to London-based military affairs think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Ukraine only has one, Soviet-built submarine which it is currently trying to restore to “service condition after over a decade of inactivity,” it adds.
Despite the odds stacking up against them, the Ukrainian navy is determined to stand its ground to the end in this storied naval territory, said Shmyganovsky.