Interview with Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy.
The commander of the Ukrainian Navy is planning an overhaul of the service. In view of the threat from the superior Russian Navy and repeated clashes in the Sea of Azov, the Ukrainian Navy is to become more capable.
ESD: When you took office as Navy Commander, did you set yourself any specific goals?
Admiral Voronchenko: My main objective was to create a balanced fleet, both in terms of personnel and capacity (in accordance with available resources), which would ensure deterrence against the aggressor state and the protection of our national interests at sea. To this end, it was considered necessary to improve the system of naval bases, to replenish the fleet and to increase the combat capabilities of coastal defence and seaports, and perhaps most importantly, to form a team of experts and ensure adequate social protection for our troops and transparent mechanisms for promotion.
ESD: With the annexation of the Crimea and the attempt to gain supremacy in the Sea of Azov by military force, will Russia continue to seek ways to deprive Ukraine of the status of a naval state?
Admiral Voronchenko: In 2014, after Russia had violated international agreements and standards through “hybrid” aggression, it established control over the Ukrainian Crimea. The aggressor has seized and actively exploited the population and territory of the peninsula, a significant part of our sovereign waters and objects of the Ukrainian economy. By building the Kerch Sea Bridge, Russia has severely restricted the passage of ships and hindered navigation in the Sea of Azov. Russia has also significantly strengthened its military grouping in Crimea. Ukraine’s defences are most vulnerable to possible attacks from the sea. Russia’s aggressive ambitions at sea will continue to be a threat to Ukraine.
The events that unfolded on 25 November 2018 vividly confirm this suggestion. According to articles 17, 38 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and Article 2 of the Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait (2004), Ukrainian warships have the right to enjoy the freedom of navigation across the Kerch Strait and in the Sea of Azov. Meanwhile, on 25 November 2018, Russian ships, grossly violating international law, first rammed the Ukrainian Navy’s YANA KAPU tugboat as it was sailing toward the Kerch Strait, deliberately blocked the shipping channel under a pretext of an “incident” they had set up, then used weapons and, greatly outnumbering the Ukrainian naval group, seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in international waters, along with 24 crew members. The conduct of the Russian military is characterised by criminal acts under the Criminal Code of Ukraine, also being a brazen violation of international law, for which the Russian Federation should be held accountable with all severity.
It is not only its own territory that Ukraine is defending but the whole world order. Russia is trying to establish and spread its dominance beyond the Black Sea, also targeting the Baltic region, the Arctic, and the Middle and Far East. It is critical for Russia to establish control over Ukraine because full realisation of democratic and Euro-Atlantic transformations that have already begun in Ukraine will lead to the collapse of Russia’s imperial ambitions and its authoritarian state machine.
ESD: Under these circumstances, what is the answer? What role do our international partners play?
Admiral Voronchenko: Ukraine, together with its strategic partners, is working hard to rebuild our naval potential. Reforms are based on NATO standards, principles, and values.
The management system is being developed and the structure of naval forces is being strengthened. Earlier this year, as part of the implementation of tasks set by the Strategic Defense Bulletin, two Operational Commands were formed: the Naval Command and Marine Command, both responsible for the planning and conduct of maritime and amphibious missions, and the use of naval groups and Marines.
Individual brigades, battalions of the Marine Corps, and artillery units of our fleet, stationed on the Azov Sea coast, became fully operational. We have already received six small armoured artillery boats from our defence companies, and we are preparing to receive two more assault boats. Two ISLAND type patrol boats provided by the United States already carry our national flag.
Our Marines have already expanded to two brigades, an artillery brigade whose units are stationed in Odessa, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk regions. Marines are being deployed on rotational missions in the Joint Forces Operation zone in the East of Ukraine. Navy command and individual units are being trained in line with NATO standards, especially during the Sea Breeze joint exercises and “ORBITAL”, “UNIFIER” and other training projects, all with the help of our partners – the US, UK, Canada, and other Western powers.
The infrastructure of the naval bases along the coast of Azov and the Black Sea is currently being improved.
Further development of our Navy’s combat potential will have a positive impact on protecting our economic interests, ensuring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at sea, and facilitating the return of temporarily occupied territories.
The people of Ukraine and its future – human life and dignity, democratic values and conditions for the sustainable development of society, territorial integrity and inviolability of the state – must be protected from threats from the sea. The Navy will do everything possible to accomplish this task.
ESD: Please tell us about the Naval Strategy 2035 and its components.
Admiral Voronchenko: Naval Strategy 2035 is a first attempt to look into the future. It was worked out by the Naval Forces Command, together with a group of Ukrainian and foreign experts. The purpose of the Strategy is to create a vision for the Navy development until 2035. This should be a modern, rapid and innovative Navy force capable of protecting the people of Ukraine and national interests in the marine and coastal environment through asymmetric and resolute operations, involving well-motivated and professional personnel charged to win.
The strategy consists of five sections, which clearly define the aim, vision, and values of the national fleet, strategic challenges outlining the future of our naval forces, their capabilities, as well as ways and means of implementing the Strategy.
In the course of operations (combat) at sea related to the defence of the state, the main purposes of the use of the Naval Forces should be Sea Denial (prevention of enemy action) and, subsequently, Sea Control over the designated area.
The Naval Strategy 2035 envisages three stages. At each stage, taking into account challenges and tasks, specific priorities have been identified for the capabilities of all types of Naval Forces: surface forces, Marines, and naval aviation.
ESD: Could you tell us more about these three stages?
Admiral Voronchenko: Stage 1, until 2025, is aimed at developing capabilities for the control of territorial waters and beyond, approximately 40 nautical miles off the Ukrainian coast. Sea control requires monitoring and taking proactive steps outside the 12-mile zone. Stage 2, from 2025 to 2030, is aimed at restoring and developing capabilities to protect Ukraine’s national interests at sea within the exclusive maritime economic zone of Ukraine, up to 200 nautical miles off the coast.
Stage 3, from 2030 to 2035, is aimed at further developing capacities of the first two stages and strengthening them to protect Ukraine’s national interests at sea.
ESD: Does the Strategy lay out development of the Marines and naval aviation?
Admiral Voronchenko: Priority will be given to developing surface forces responsible for anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, anti-boat defence, mine action and demining, electronic warfare, missile and artillery strikes, naval landing, and specific actions at sea and on the rivers. Marines should return to fulfilling traditional tasks such as amphibious (landing) operations, protection of marine (river) infrastructure, and surveillance operations. Naval aviation will carry out anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, anti-boat defence, intelligence, reconnaissance, naval landing support, search and rescue, and specific actions at sea and on the rivers.
ESD: You have repeatedly pointed out the need to change the Navy staffing policy.
Admiral Voronchenko: The first stage of transformation in the HR management should consist of creating a military recruitment system that preserves existing naval personnel and builds up new personnel potential. Full support of a military career – from sailor to admiral – combined with higher social standards and financial incentives will make a Navy career more prestigious for our youths, to ensure that highly skilled personnel will stay in the military ranks and to tackle the problem of brain drain. The introduction of NATO principles, approaches, and values in the military education system should prepare a new generation of highly skilled, proactive servicemen with advanced leadership qualities.
The ultimate result of the Navy reform will be the rebuilding of Ukraine’s naval capabilities, ensuring a reliable defence of our Homeland, and the ability to defeat a stronger adversary.
We predict that Russia will continue its creeping aggression against our state from sea. Under these circumstances, the Navy must clearly define its future strategy, tasks, and development priorities, and focus national resources and international assistance on developing certain naval capabilities that are most important.
This approach will gradually increase the ability to defeat a stronger adversary during the first stage, change the mentality of a military way of thinking from a template-type to the one welcoming creative initiative and involving decentralised decision-making through delegation of authority at all command levels, and create conditions for the supply of high-tech weapons.
The gradual development of capabilities should balance the forces that are part of the Navy and ensure their combat coordination to boost manoeuvrability and act rapidly and asymmetrically, primarily targeting the adversary’s most vulnerable spots.
The interview was conducted by Alexander Horobets.