Russia Snatched Ukraine’s Rust-Bucket Submarine
Sub ‘Zaporizhzhia’ is 44 years old, barely functional
Russian forces have bloodlessly captured the Ukrainian navy’s sole submarine Zaporizhzhia at her home port in Sevastopol—the strategic peninsula the Moscow has been steadily annexing since late February.
But for Moscow, capturing Zaporizhzhia is more a symbolic victory than a practical military one. The 1970-vintage Foxtrot-class submarine is barely functional. It’s likely the Russian navy will promptly decommission the prize vessel rather than try to rehabilitate her.
Russian state media company RIA Novosti announced the sub’s seizure on March 22. “The St. Andrew’s flag of the Russian navy was raised on Ukraine’s only submarine,” RIA Novosti stated, adding that Zaporizhzhia “will join the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”
The Russian Black Sea flotilla, which previously included just a single Kilo-class submarine—a fairly modern design—shares facilities with the Ukrainian navy owing to a lease deal dating to the mid-1990s. That deal is now moot, as Moscow effectively controls the entire Crimean peninsula.
Russian paramilitaries and pro-Moscow militia from Ukraine began occupying Crimean facilities in late February. They claimed to be protecting Russian-speakers following widespread protests in Ukraine that toppled the existing, Moscow-aligned government.
In mid-March, the occupiers invited Ukrainian troops in Crimea to join Russia. Many did, and on that pretense, Moscow reportedly claimed 54 of the Ukrainian navy’s 67 vessels, including Zaporizhzhia. Kiev apparently remains in control of its most modern warship, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, which was on an overseas deployment when Russia invaded.
Leaving aside the new prize vessels, Russia Black Sea Fleet’s includes two cruisers, a destroyer, several frigates and corvettes and the Kilo sub—a much more powerful force than Ukraine’s. But that’s not to say the aged, poorly-maintained Black Sea flotilla is in good shape. “It’s not a particularly powerful force,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, told The Washington Post.
Adding Ukraine’s even older and rustier ships will not improve the Black Sea Fleet’s condition. In fact, they make the flotilla’s problems worse, by saddling the Russian navy with large numbers of ships badly in need of expensive repairs.
Zaporizhzhia is a perfect example. After commissioning with the Soviet Northern Fleet in 1970, the Foxtrot-class diesel sub spent 20 years patrolling the Atlantic. She was likely already in bad shape when, in 1990, Moscow transferred her to the Black Sea Fleet. Her batteries failed in 1995.
In 1997, Russia gave the inoperative boat to Ukraine as part of the Sevastopol base-sharing deal. It took six years for Kiev to be able to afford to buy new batteries. But Zaporizhzhia was rusting away from neglect. She spent another nine years in a Sevastopol shipyard, slowly undergoing repairs.
The sub finally returned to sea briefly in the summer of 2012. But by then, Ukraine had lost its ability to train competent submariners. “It should be admitted that Ukrainian navy no longer has specialists suitable for submarine service,” a navy official told RIA Novosti. He proposed that Kiev request Russian assistance.
Half of Zaporizhzhia’s crew—perhaps 40 sailors—opted to join the Russia navy, according to the March 22 report. The other half, including the captain, left the vessel and could join thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Crimea.
They leave behind a vessel that has spent most of the last quarter-century in disrepair—and is unlikely to ever deploy again.