Soboba, the second-largest city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, was in an uproar this week. As the city sagged beneath the weight of a historic flood, a group of locals rallied to use a fire boat to help save a building under threat of collapsing. In comparison to the skirmishes that awaited them at Soboba’s Russian front, that sounded like small-bore activity. But Soboba, and much of Ukraine, is following the example of the United States in an effort to boost the stability of the country.
The United States has been investing billions of dollars in Ukraine’s military since 2014, when the bloody conflict that followed the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovich intensified. Ukraine and the U.S. have worked closely together on security issues, most recently in Syria, where the U.S. has provided anti-ISIS air support to Ukraine and credits the Ukrainian military’s stabilization of eastern Ukraine.
At this point, U.S. troops and military equipment have accounted for less than a quarter of the roughly $4 billion that has been pumped into Ukraine over the past three years. But much of the support from the U.S. has been directed toward helping Ukraine upgrade its navy to counteract Russia’s growing naval reach in the Black Sea. Although the number of Russian troops and tanks in Crimea has fallen since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, the increase in Russian navy activity has become troublesome. By 2011, the number of Russian naval vessels operating in the Black Sea numbered 9; by 2017, that number had jumped to 53.
Kiev has a plan to counter Russian expansionism. Earlier this year, the Ukrainian navy signed a new agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense to support the modernization of its naval forces. The deal covers training Ukraine’s forces in navy operations; purchasing new weapons and equipment, including ships and helicopters; and supporting search and rescue efforts. The United States has already built air bases and also trained Ukrainian troops to operate those bases. Those air bases will be used to support the upgrades to the country’s naval forces.
To make their plans, Ukraine and the U.S. need to assess just what kind of threats Russia might pose in the Black Sea. In March, the Russian navy thwarted an attempt by U.S. sailors to dock at a Greek naval base in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. The Russian navy then moved to seal off the port city of Sevastopol to block an attempt by the U.S. Coast Guard to land a search-and-rescue helicopter. The crux of the episode was that the Russians don’t want a friendly port for an American warship.
Ukraine isn’t the only country that the Russians are expanding in the Black Sea. In August, the Russian navy released footage of its largest aircraft carrier in all its glory — the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov — bound for Tartus in Syria, where the Russian air force operates. The carrier is a solid weapon and one that is also being marketed to countries in the Middle East and the Far East to bolster their navies. In December, Russia presented Egypt with the Kuznetsov.
Fighter jets are typically considered a key part of a modern navy. But the billions of dollars that the U.S. military is expected to spend with Ukraine over the next three years will go much further than just buying weapons. The bases will be used to train crews and personnel, and to support ground forces. If the United States wants a more stable Ukraine, that training will come in handy.