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For Now, Ukraine's Only Warships Will Have to Remain in the UK

Sandown
The Ukrainian Navy minehunter Cherkasy enters Portsmouth flying the Union Jack (Courtesy Royal Navy)

Published Apr 11, 2024 2:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

 

The United Kingdom has begun rebuilding Ukraine's navy with the donation of two minehunters, but a long-foreseen hitch prevents the vessels from reaching the Black Sea. Instead, the Sandown-class minehunters and their new Ukrainian crews will operate out of Portsmouth, training alongside the Royal Navy until the war ends.   

Since the outset of the invasion in February 2022, Russia has been determined to cripple Ukrainian shipping, and one of its earliest tactics was to lay mines in the Black Sea. Drifting mines damaged multiple vessels in 2023, and countless others were found and destroyed by Ukraine's neighbors. 

To counter Russia’s covert mine-planting missions and help Ukraine reopen its ports, the UK donated two older Sandown-class minehunters to Ukraine. However, delivery is not possible for the near future. In January, the Turkish government confirmed that it will not allow these vessels through the Bosporus. Turkey controls the strategic waterway under the terms of the Montreux Convention of 1936, and has the sole ability to close the Bosporus to warships while a war is under way in the Black Sea.  

For now, the need for minehunters in the Black Sea is less dire than it may have appeared last year. Ukraine's extended campaign of missile and drone attacks has driven the Russian Navy into the eastern edge of the Black Sea, lifting the blockade. Traffic to and from Ukraine's largest seaports has resumed, and now includes large-scale exports of steel products in addition to grain. Though risk from sea mines may still exist, maritime commerce is undeterred.

Until the war ends, the Ukrainian crew of the two minehunters will be based in the Royal Navy's main base at Portsmouth, far from the danger of the front lines. For at least their initial voyage from Scotland to Portsmouth, the vessels kept a low profile and flew their original British ensigns (though the Ukrainian Navy flag was also in evidence on their arrival, below). 

Ukrainian Navy minesweeper Chernihiv enters Portsmouth (Royal Navy)

The Sandown-class are the old workhorses of the Royal Navy minehunting fleet, and are equipped with sonar and robotic mine-removal systems. They are being phased out and replaced by Britain's new automated minehunting platform, beginning with the civilian-crewed RFA Stirling Castle. The Royal Navy has plans to acquire up to three more mine countermeasures ships like this former offshore vessel, beginning in the mid-2020s.

Courtesy Royal Navy

The two Sandown-class minehunters are the only surface vessels of note in the Ukrainian Navy, but the ship-free service has leaned on Ukraine's defense industrial base to create different capabilities. It has pioneered drone boat warfare at scale, swarming Russian warships with locally-built suicide boats, and has used Western-provided antiship missiles to considerable effect. To date, it has damaged or destroyed about one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.