“It’s a Russian military ship … The distance between us is about four and a half miles,” said the young commander of a Ukrainian gunboat, pointing to a marker on his radar screen.
Senior Lieutenant Denis Bakumov, 23, led his small armored ship in the waters shared by Ukraine and Russia, where tensions are high amid fears of a new Russian invasion.
“Whenever we go out to sea, when we do certain tasks, we constantly meet them and they constantly follow us and watch us,” he told Sky News.
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He said the Russian ship appeared to be close to a commercial vessel on this occasion.
The Ukrainian commander ensured that his movements were not seen by the Russian side as a provocation.
The Sea of Azov is a unique flashpoint in the conflict between Moscow and Kiev.
A pocket of vital water, it is surrounded by both countries as well as by Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula which was annexed by Russia eight years ago.
In 2004, in less hostile times, an agreement was reached between the two sides to share the waterway, meaning that the border between Ukraine and Russia begins on their coasts, respectively, rather than 12 miles south. large.
However, since Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea and supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, his navy and coastguard have also increasingly imposed increased control over it. Azov, according to Ukrainian navy commanders.
Sky News was invited aboard Senior Lieutenant Bakumov’s ship, called Vyshgorod, for a brief sea voyage from a small naval base in Berdyansk, a port city in southeastern Ukraine.
The cool-faced officer, dressed in a naval camouflage uniform, with a black sweater for warmth, said he and a small team of fellow sailors were operating the lightly armored ship, which is armed with two systems of weapons that can fire grenades and bullets.
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Getting on deck was an intimidating prospect in the freezing cold of winter.
Ice and snow had turned the pale gray metallic surface into a skating rink and there was no railing to catch awkward feet.
When asked if any sailors had ever fallen overboard, a stern-faced officer replied, “No.”
When asked if they had ever lost a journalist, he also replied: “No”.
When asked if, if a reporter plunged into the freezing waves, he would dive in and save them, he smiled but again replied, “No.”
Hope a joke.
Warning “they can use their weapon against us”
Sailors can stay at sea on their boat for up to five days – an excursion they usually do more often in the summer.
During the winter months, outings are more sporadic.
The main task of the team is to help protect the Ukrainian coast from any Russian attack.
They are also sometimes told to accompany commercial vessels leaving port in case they run into problems with Russian patrol vessels.
Senior Lieutenant Bakumov said encounters with his Russian counterparts were varied.
“It’s not always (aggressive) but (there are) situations where they really start to act aggressively towards us and perform illegal actions,” he said, looking out to sea from his post. of command.
When asked when this would happen, he said: “Dangerous maneuvers or they warn us that they can use their weapon against us.”
He said this once happened to him while accompanying ships passing through the Kerch Strait, a particularly sensitive but important area that connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, making it a transit point. vital for all inbound trade and to Ukraine and Russia from this sea route.
Ukraine is slowly rebuilding naval power
Ukraine’s ability to protect its sea lanes and coasts became much more difficult after the capture of Crimea.
The peninsula had been the home port of the navy.
The majority of Ukrainian warships have been captured in a devastating blow to a nation that needs the sea for economic commerce and security.
But the commanders are slowly rebuilding their naval power with the help of international allies – especially Britain, the United States, and Canada.
One of the plans is to renovate the base at Berdyansk, turning it into Ukraine’s main naval base on the Sea of Azov over the next two years.
The UK’s promise to offer Ukraine credit to help fund the project means commanders appear confident that a shore of large stone boulders will soon be turned into a wharf.
“This means that our ability to resist the enemy increases,” said another officer, Senior Lt. Yaroslav Shevkhenko, 30, pointing to the area where the modernized base is being built.