The US Coast Guard has handed over two patrol boats that it no longer needs to Ukraine. The move is meant to boost Ukraine’s pathetic fleet, but was reportedly stalled for years due to corruption in the government.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday took a break from complaining about Russia to the UN General Assembly in New York and travelled to Baltimore. There he joined Ihor Voronchenko, a career tank troops commander who currently serves as the chief of the Ukrainian Navy, for a ceremony. US Coast Guard Vice Admiral Michael F. McAllister signed over two Island-class patrol boats to Ukraine. A thankful Poroshenko said the American ships would help Ukraine fight Russian “intimidation”.
The two 168-ton ships will probably be a significant boost to Ukraine’s naval capabilities. The country may have received dozens of warships and a robust shore infrastructure during the bitter split with Russia of the USSR’s Black Sea fleet in the 1990s, but years of negligence and underfunding reduced Ukraine’s naval force to a handful of barely-operational warships and a dozen or two of support vessels by the time of the 2014 crisis. And despite a hike in defense spending since then, the state of the Ukrainian Navy leaves much to be desired.
With neither funding nor shipbuilding expertise available, the Ukrainian navy seeks to create a “mosquito fleet” – a force of small boats whose main job is to harass larger Russian warships. In case of an actual armed conflict the boats are meant to attack en mass to overwhelm their target’s defenses and probably cause some damage before being destroyed. A similar approach was adopted, for example, by Iran against American missile destroyers patrolling the Persian Gulf.
Poroshenko’s acceptance speech didn’t mention an alleged conflict of interest, which may have stalled the handing-over of the boats by years. In late March, an investigation by the Ukrainian branch of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported that Ukraine and the US have been talking about a possible transfer of the boats since at least 2014, but red tape on part of Ukraine prevented any significant progress.
The report alleged that the reason may be President Poroshenko’s ties to a shipyard in Kiev called Kuznya na Rybalskomu. The company produces the Gurza-M patrol boats for the Ukrainian Navy. The RL/RFE reported that the US boats were superior to Gurza-M in terms of coast and capabilities, but their transition would have messed up with securing defense contracts for the president’s shipyard.
Ukraine’s Navy responded to allegations by accusing its authors of distorting reality and aiding Russia by publishing “confidential information of defense nature”. Poroshenko dismissed the report as “fake news” and pledged that the Island-class cutters would soon join the Ukrainian Navy.
It’s not clear however how much longer the transfer process is to take place. Ukraine has to pay over $ 10 million for various services necessary for an actual handover, including retrofitting of the boats, training of the crew, fuel etc. The training process alone would take at least four months.
Drummond and Cushing, the two cutters donated to Ukraine, are the seventh and eighth ships of the class handed over by the US Coast Guard to a foreign power. Earlier similar deals were struck with Pakistan, Georgia and Costa Rica. The boats have been in service in the US since 1985, and according to Vice Admiral McAllister they can be pretty efficient in skilled hands despite their age.
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