Ochakiv: An Important Ukrainian Outpost in the Northwestern Black Sea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 140

Ochakiv, Ukraine (Source: ochakiv.info)

Few coastal Ukrainian cities have historically suffered as many instances of destruction only to be rebuilt time and time again as Ochakiv. And today, the Ochakiv Naval Base is set to host a $750,000 maritime operations center, which the United States Navy is building for Ukraine (Navy.mil, August 7; Usni.org, August 15; 112 Agency, August 16).

The port of Ochakiv is located on a peninsula between the Berezansky estuary and the Southern Bug River delta, at the conjunction where the Dnieper and the Southern Bug rivers flow into the Black Sea. For centuries, the city was threatened by hostile forces and defended a geopolitically important maritime entryway to the Ukrainian interior. Under the eras of the Kyivan Rus and Lithuanian-Rus, the city was called Dashiv and served to protect the surrounding region against Tatar incursions. But in 1480, Dashiv was captured by Crimean Tatar forces and ownership of the city eventually passed to the Ottoman Empire. After some time, the municipality took on the name Açı-Kale (from the Turkish açı—angle, and kale—castle). This name was transliterated into Russian as Ochakiv, which carried on as the city’s name into the present. From 1493 to 1788, Cossacks who inhabited lands making up modern Ukraine repeatedly seized the city-fortress (Day.kyiv.ua, March 31, 2000).

In 1788, however, after a half-year siege, Ochakiv was taken by the Russian army, thus concluding the long-term campaign to forcibly absorb the territory of the Crimean Khanate into the Russian Empire. Subsequently, the value of Ochakiv as a city-fortress declined because no more hostile forces existed on its flanks. Nonetheless, Ochakiv took on new military-political importance during the First and Second World Wars, and was in fact occupied by Romania in 1941–1944. Ochakiv’s advantageous geographical position continued to be exploited during the post-War Soviet era: notably, a naval aviation airfield and a number of fortifications were built in the city. A particularly important infrastructural element of Ochakiv is its artificial Maysky Island, favorably positioned in proximity to the navigable canal off the city’s coast. The island was constructed in 1790 for an artillery unit that protected the Dnipro estuary. It has been used as a Naval Special Forces base since 1961.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014, the military-political significance of Ochakiv has again intensified. The new relevance of the city is emphasized by the fact that any aggression against Ukraine coming from the Black Sea to the Dnieper and the Southern Bug could engage a wide array of strategically important southern Ukrainian industrial areas (including ports, shipyards, and hydroelectric and nuclear power plants) (see EDM, July 13, August 3).

Militarily, Ochakiv again faces threats along its southern sea-river flank leading to Mykolaiv and Kherson—large southern port-industrial centers of Ukraine. These two cities both have navigable connections with the Black Sea via river channels: Mykolaiv via the Buzka–Dnepr–Lyman Channel (BDLC), and Kherson via the Kherson Sea Channel (KSK). The total length of the BDLC is 81,368 kilometers; the KMK—40 km. Grain, vegetable and soybean oils, metals (including ferroalloys), fertilizers, as well as bauxites make up an incomplete list of the multi-million-dollar transshipments carried out every year in this region (Korabelov.info, June 3). Mykolaiv is the largest nearby city. Its industrial facilities include shipyards capable of building different classes of combat ships, from corvettes all the way up to a Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier. A number of international transport corridors (ITC) run through Mykolaiv, including ITC No. 7 (St. Petersburg–Kyiv–Odesa–Bucharest–Aleksandropolis), ITC No. 9 (“Danube Water Way”), TRACECA “Europe–Caucasus–Asia,” as well as one of the New Euro-Asian Transport Initiative (NELTI) routes (Northern China–Kazakhstan–Western Europe) (SIFservice.com, accessed November 1). Additionally, Mykolaiv Sea Port is in the top five leaders of the Ukrainian marine industry (Portnikolaev.com, accessed November 1). Consequently, daily up to 120 merchant vessels from different countries pass by Ochakiv.

The geopolitical turmoil caused by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine underscore Kyiv’s urgent need to maintain relevant naval assets in Ochakiv to protect the maritime entryway to Mykolaiv and Kherson as well as adjacent littoral waters. Ukrainian naval forces in the area need the ability to effectively operate in a sea-river conjunction characterized by shallow waters with indented coastline and sandbanks. These capabilities correspond well to small armored artillery boats of the Gyurza-M class. Six of them have already been built for the Ukrainian Navy by the private joint stock company Plant Kuznya on Rybalsky (Ukrmilitary.com, September 29). The number of these light naval vessels will be increased to a dozen in the near future. Such assets will serve to protect freedom of navigation in the BDLC, secure Ukrainian ports upriver, ensure control over important shallow waters of the Kinburne and Tendrivska spits, and adequately respond to potential amphibious-sabotage threats.

The light naval forces base in Ochakiv is well suited to the Modern Maritime Operations Center (MOC) that the US is building for the Ukrainian Navy (Navy.mil, July 25; August 7). Based on these and other capabilities located at Ochakiv—such as a branch of the state-owned enterprise “Delta-Pilot,” which is responsible for regulation and navigation (piloting) of vessel traffic on the BDLC (Delta-pilot.ua, accessed November 1)—Ukraine is in a good position to complete an effective combat naval system in this strategically important maritime area.

At the same time, it should be noted that Ochakiv holds sacred-symbolic significance for Russia. The Kremlin closely associates this city with Russia’s fight for possession of Crimea in the 18th century. Indeed, the rather stormy emotional response from the Russian authorities regarding the construction of the MOC in Ochakiv indicates that, in Russia’s mind, this city remains within the zone of Moscow’s geopolitical interests (Rian.com.ua, August 17).

Thus, Ukraine will need to take the protection of Ochakiv and surrounding littoral waters seriously. Building up light naval forces (Gyurza-M boats) at the Ochakiv base represents one sensible means of achieving that goal. Systematic naval operations involving Gyurza-Ms, combined with the local basing of naval seals as well as the monitoring capabilities provided by the MOC and Delta-Pilot, will allow Kyiv to more credibly defend the state’s maritime interests in this strategically important waterway. In addition, Ukraine will require other “mosquito” (see EDM, March 9) platforms with greater range and seaworthiness to protect the port-industrial hub at Odesa, Snake Island, and further littoral areas from mines, sea raids or amphibious operations (see EDM, July 13, August 3). US Island-class ships, which Ukraine is currently in the process of acquiring (UNIAN, July 17), could be a good solution, strongly improving security in the northwestern Black Sea.