UKRINFORM media outlet published an extended interview with Andriy Tarasov, Vice Admiral and First Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian Navy. We consider it necessary to share this material with you in full and unabridged, since the story told by the officer sheds much light on the events that took place in the days when Russia openly and arrogantly, in front of the whole world, annexed our Ukrainian Crimea.
Different dates are given for the beginning of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Some people believe that a special operation began on February 23 with a large-scale rally in Sevastopol when a Russian citizen was elected mayor. Some people write that the point of no return was the capture of the Crimean parliament on February 27. But Russia’s official hand appeared here on March 1 when Putin sent a proposal to the Federation Council to use Russian troops in Crimea.
At this time, Andriy Tarasov, head of the Naval Operations Center of the Ukrainian Navy, was on board the Hetman Sahaidachny, a ship that was returning after an anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. It later became a major character of the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea.
We spoke with Vice Admiral, First Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian Navy Andriy Tarasov when he arrived from Odesa on a business trip to Kyiv.
Question: Let’s go back to 2014. You are returning from the Gulf of Aden from the anti-piracy operation on the Hetman Sahaidachny ship. You find out about the situation in Crimea on your way. What’s next?
Answer: We were following the February events on the Maidan even during the operation on the ship. During those tragic days, we had to leave Djibouti, but we deliberately stayed so as to have Internet access and watch what was happening at home. We had left when it was the deadline for our stay so as to have time to pass through the Suez Canal. We knew we were going to a changing country. At the end of February, we made our way to Crete. The Crimean parliament had already been seized and our military units had been blocked. We talked on the phone with our comrades captured in Crimea and realized that it was a war, that active fighting was a matter of time. That is why we planned our further route (we decided to move to Odesa, not to Crimea) in order to avoid a clash with the enemy’s overwhelming forces. There was no sense in staying and waiting in Crete since the situation did not look like it would be solved in the near future, and there was no sense in returning to Sevastopol. The ship is not fighting at the pier. We realized that going there would be a trap. There was no choice. We had the opportunity to move only to Odesa. The decision was made to return to Odesa, and then Acting Defense Minister Teniukh approved it. I returned to Odesa and then went to Crimea.
Q: There was no fear of returning to Crimea?
A: What does fear mean? I had to be where I had to be. I fulfilled my functions and could not remain in the rank of admiral on a single ship. I had to be where the Navy was. Then I came under the subordination of Commander Haiduk.
Q: Did you easily get to Crimea?
A: We were driving by car. I am from Donetsk. I have a Russian surname, so we passed through the checkpoints without any problems. Then I visited the Operations Support Center, the 36th Coast Guard Brigade in Perevalne, I was in the Sevastopol Naval Base in the Striletska Bay. I communicated with commanders, including those aboard ships…
Combat units were blocked on March 7. “Demonstration actions” were conducted against them, including the imitation of an assault. For example, at night, Russians moved their APCs, deployed snipers, completely imitating preparations for the assault. Ultimatums were put forward so that Ukrainian units would lay down their arms and stop resisting. I wanted to personally find out the situation, the situation around the units, the mood of commanders, and, after all, look at that with my own eyes. Because talking on the phone will not replace your own impression. Moreover, the means of private communications were no longer active and all the negotiations were being tapped. There were special forces of the Russian Federation, which carried out such wiretapping around the clock. In such circumstances, it was extremely difficult to obtain and provide secret information.
Q: How did you live those days? Did you understand that we are losing, that Crimea is being taken away for decades?
A: I knew it was a war. I did not come home on my first visit, because I did not want to create conditions when relatives would be a factor influencing me. But I ordered that my daughter be transported to the government-controlled territory. In those circumstances, military commanders could not act on their own accord. Sometimes they tell us that commanders should have scuttled ships. How to scuttle them? The State Bureau of Investigation would then start the proceedings: on what basis were the ships scuttled? We were not legally in a state of war at that time.
On the other hand, the ship at the pier is not at war. And I am still convinced that the commanders who remained loyal to the oath did the best they could. We were provoked to use weapons. They wanted to have a reason to invade mainland Ukraine already.
Let’s remember how groups were formed to block military units. There were respective tactics for these actions. From a distance, it looked like a civilian rally in support of Russia. Tactically, it looked like this: the first row – noisy active women, noise producers, supporters of Russia, there are men – “talking” heads, they stand side by side and make remarks (about fascists, Bandera followers, invaders), if someone wins in this discussion, then a coordinator appears. There are a lot of people, more passive, who actually form the crowd. Behind them is another group of guys who create pressure, and behind those are more guys who don’t interfere, but are ready to act if a confrontation begins.
On the rooftops are other guys, perhaps snipers, who can “arrange” bloodshed and create an uncontrollable situation. The Navy headquarters was captured in this way, through special actions.
Later in Donbas, they acted in the same way, and our comrades from other branches of armed forces found out how to counter this. It was then. But at that time we were surrounded. A confirmation of us changing their plans is that they twice postponed the date for the referendum.
Q: You had the smallest percentage of traitors aboard the Hetman Sahaidachny ship… How did it happen that the naval command in 2014 in the person of Berezovsky betrayed an oath of office, but your subordinates did not?
A: This “commander” is a fly-by-night. He betrayed a day after his appointment. He has no commander’s glory in the Navy. But a word dropped from a song makes it all wrong. This fact is written in our chronicles.
There is no average portrait – whether a traitor or a deserter. There are people who come from Crimea whose parents stayed there (I hope that war-torn relations are getting better) and who moved to Ukraine with their wives because they are Ukrainians. And there are those who have spoken Ukrainian all their lives, had a clear Ukrainian identity, but went to serve in the Russian army. But when making assessments, understand that this was a perfectly planned military operation prepared for more than a year. The main thing for Russians was to break down the basis of Crimea’s defense – the Navy. The main task at that moment was to destroy the control system, remove the head, and they succeeded because of Berezovsky’s treason. If he had kept the control levers further, the situation would have been somewhat different. We would not change it drastically, because it was necessary to respond to changes in the situation and seizures in the first days. But Berezovsky’s treason led to the top management being discredited. And every commander had to act at his own discretion.
Although it is a great temptation to generalize, draw portraits, reduce everything to a simplified formula or linear estimation, saying that Crimea was handed over by local people, separatists – it is not necessary to succumb to it.
I am a native of Donetsk, I was born and grew up there, the city was always Ukrainian, even when there was no Ukrainian school. I was brought up as a patriot in Donetsk.
But this is our history which you cannot escape – two-thirds of the personnel remained in Crimea. There were people in military units who were ready to act, but they knew that there was one who would not resist. There were commanders who united people. Yuriy Holovashenko (the brigade commander made the decision to take the Russian side if the Russians stayed in Crimea, but Yuriy Holovashenko refused, and the personnel followed him), the commander of the ship Cherkasy, who offered resistance. And this resistance of my comrades is the same story, just like betrayal by others.
The reasons why this happened were analyzed many times. But it is not unnecessary to recall that in 2012-2013, the Navy switched to 100% contract service. We were staffed. The remuneration was not significant (although those who served in Crimea were paid more than in other regions), but the salaries of the military of the Russian Black Sea Fleet were much higher. My salary was UAH 11,000, whereas a Russian in the same position received ten times more. The fact that officers were not provided with housing also played a role.
I know officers who violated the oath and remained under the influence of their families, because they got married there…
Q: They are henpecked husbands, aren’t they?
A: They are rather hostages. At times, they had to make decisions about divorce, abandoning children, and moving to an unknown place with unclear prospects. In fact, not many people are ready to make such a step. And I know people for whom the decision to commit treason was not easy. It was all a difficult choice: you either abandon your homeland and lose identity or leave your family, go out to the mainland and, in fact, lose, the opportunity to communicate with your children. For six years, some officers have not been able to communicate fully with their children, and some of them cannot get to their parents’ funerals. It was good when officers were supported by the family, and in some cases, they left their equipped housing.
In general, this is a huge set of problems, but the people who made the choice remained honest with themselves, their conscience, their oath – they do not regret what they did. I often ask officers about this, and they say that if they would return this time in 2014, they would do the same. In addition, after retirement, only a few return to Crimea. Moreover, some of our retirees who were born and grew up in Sevastopol came to mainland Ukraine with us and continue to work here.
Q: Blood is not water…
A: It’s not about blood. Because there are cases when pure-blooded Ukrainians stayed there. And there were people who were born and lived in Crimea. We even have a retiree who moved with the Navy, he was an employee in the Navy’s Command and he remains an employee of the Ukrainian Navy’s Command.
Q: The first of March. Russians began to block military units. Is this date – the fall of our naval forces – the day of resistance or the day of their nullification, birth?
A: The Navy went through a very tough clean-up. There are not many of us, but people with whom we started to revive the Navy in 2014, I have 200% confidence in them. I lost my friends in Crimea because they betrayed me and now they seem to have died for me, because I crossed them out of my life, I do not communicate with them, and I do not care what happens to them. And there are some officers with whom I have not had such contact in the service, and then suddenly he becomes my native officer, my comrade, because we came through this together and remained faithful. I know that he will not betray me, and it is very important. Therefore, the team updates and what we have done in these six years – we have not done so much, but we have restored our management, we are starting the revival of the Ukrainian Navy, we have developed a strategy, a vision for development.
Q: By the way, I liked the strategy for the development of the Ukrainian Navy. It’s short (no more than 15 pages), so it’s very easy to read, and I think you set realistic goals. If you describe it briefly, the first stage until 2025 is the following: a small fleet is being created, you preserve ports, coastal zones and nearby waters, right?
A: According to the strategy, the first stage envisages that we are restoring control of the situation at sea… This is the observation of the situation. And we must see the situation in the near area so that we can put our forces, our coastal artillery on alert in time, because it can be done in the shortest possible time. That is, we have a set of forces that can prevent the enemy from reaching the coast.
Q: That is, Russian paratroopers will not take Odesa?
A: They won’t. We have enough forces to repel the landing of paratroopers. But we must build a strategy so that the enemy cannot even come close to our shore. And this is the task of this stage that we are working on. That is, we should prevent the situation when the enemy starts airborne landing – it should not step on our land from the sea. And our task is to ensure that it cannot reach our coast. This is the essence of the first stage.
To do so, we must restore the surveillance system, build up forces that will deter the enemy, and protect the ports, because it is our artery that ensures trade, profit. We will return our right to the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.
Of course, we will not reach parity with the Russian Federation in terms of forces at sea. But it should not be said that we will not beat them. We must act asymmetrically, use the weapons the Russians are not ready for.
It should be understood that they have certain restrictions on their fleet, including those caused by sanctions. And yet there is a propaganda factor: I am by no means saying that their fleet is weak, but rumors of its superpower are exaggerated. At times, they substitute the wish for the reality. We need to have a small fleet capable of acting decisively, quickly, and striking.
And this applies not only to rocket launchers, but also to the coastal missile system. We understand how to build a fleet and how to apply it in the conditions of certain advantages of the enemy. We do not want our paratroopers to land in Novorossiysk. We plan to prevent airborne landing in our country and to secure the return of Crimea in the future.
There are a range of issues to protect our interests at sea. We moved two boats by land to the Sea of Azov, and with their appearance, Russians stopped searching our ships. It’s a balance of power. Of course, we also need to have a permanent presence in sensitive areas along the Black Sea. And to do so, it is necessary to have seaworthy ships, with sufficient seaworthiness and autonomy. I’m not talking about cruisers or destroyers, but a small multi-purpose corvette designed for Black Sea action will be needed anyway. We must still protect our interests throughout the Black Sea.
Q: How did you relieve stress then, during annexation? How did you understand: you are leaving Crimea, but it is not yet known whether the country will hold on? You didn’t know the end…
A: Of course, I did not predict what would happen next. Because then I watched events in Donbas, I observed the capture of the SBU office in Kramatorsk, then events in Sloviansk. I constantly saw what was happening in Donetsk, I saw that there was a gradual displacement of Ukraine from Donetsk, Luhansk regions. We defended Kharkiv, thank God.
But I remembered that day. It was the end of March – the beginning of April, it was springtime, I was not home for half a year, I finally returned home, the sun might be shining there, the leaves were blossoming, something was blooming because this period for me was so very gloomy. And I don’t even remember what the weather was like. I understand that it was springtime, everything was waking up, but I saw everything getting worse. When I got home, my neighbor [he is from the SBU, and he stayed there] asked me: Where are you going? To Ukraine, I say, where else can I go? He just diverted his eyes. As for stress … there was no time for stress, we had to drive people out of Crimea.
On April 1, many people who rented apartments were evicted. They just stopped renting the housing and said: “Go away!” Salary cards did not work, that is, people were left without money. In various places of Sevastopol, ships were already captured, but the crew met, lined up in the morning.
We had to leave in an organized manner. We started leaving when we got the order. Every day worked against us, we got the order on March 3 and was the first column was formed on March 4. It was the Naval Academy, cadets began to leave. It was the first organized column. Russians held these cadets for several hours, examining everything, seizing their laptops, carrying out such abuse and humiliation.
Q: Because they chose Ukraine?
A: I don’t know. Let’s talk about good things. We received great assistance. For example, Oleg Sentsov assisted us and organized the departure. We are very grateful for this strong support. Volunteers, Crimean Tatars helped in all points and different areas. This is very serious. For example, I watched the last Ukrainian channel in Crimea that broadcast programs long after the referendum. There was ATR, a Crimean Tatar channel, and I watched it. I watched it for the first time in my life, and it was like a fresh outlet after two weeks of being in such isolation. It cannot be forgotten.
And people just helped. You should not think that everyone in Crimea supported Russians. There were people who gave us the property of their institution, knowing that it was state-owned, that it would come under the control of a foreign country.
A: Also the equipment for heating military units that were blocked there. That is, we felt the support of the population there.
Therefore, we must clearly understand that our people are there. Our people survive there because there is an influx of Russians. They, by all means, force our people to leave Crimea, move to the government-controlled territory. They fill their places with immigrants from Russia. And this is a policy planned in advance by Russians, which they consistently implement in order to change the composition of the Crimean population. They dream of doing the same with Crimea as they did by turning East Prussia into the Kaliningrad Region.
Personally, I feel very guilty about Crimean Tatars who remain there.
They tried to resist. They also held the first rally, provided support. I cannot blame them in any case. But how can they resist when the armed forces and the state do not resist? They did what they did. And now they remain there, and it is difficult for them there, because they with their national identity are opposed to the imperial policy pursued by Russia now.
But I am sure we will return Crimea. We need to work on this, and it does not mean that we will take it by force. No, we have to make a whole set of methods: to work on the diplomatic line, in the legal field, on economic issues. And there must be a military component that supports all our efforts. Why was there the aggression of the Russian Federation? Because we encouraged Russia with our weakness.
The British have a saying: we have a fleet, so nothing happened. We need to have the Armed Forces, including the Navy so that nothing of this kind happens again. All countries that are now neutral – Sweden, Switzerland – gained neutrality in a serious struggle in the previous century. Therefore, we must have the strength to defend our interests and prevent further aggression. And they [Russians] did not reject the intention to carry out further aggression. We have stopped them now, and they are looking for ways to split us from the inside out, to divide us by political preferences, by language issues.
Q: What is your main asset during the Crimean campaign, annexation? Have you acquired some symbolic capital, some impression, some conviction? Is there anything that is valuable to you?
A: All barriers have been removed, I do not value my position, status, material things. I know how to lose it. And I know there are things that are much bigger than that. I lost a lot in Crimea. I lived there for 20 years, and I have many friends there. And now I have a new family, my daughter was born, my older daughter moved here, and now she lives in Odesa. That is, what was before 2014 is far behind now. Now everything is completely different. Since I have not lost my honor, I no longer have any barriers. This is the inner freedom that I acquired there, and I cherish it a lot.
Lana Samokhvalova, Kyiv
Photo credit: Pavlo Bahmut