The U.S. is working to bolster Ukraine's navy, a force that was decimated by Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014, an effort that comes as Moscow strengthens its own forces in the region in a buildup that some officials see as a threat to NATO's southeastern flank.
The ramped-up effort to help Ukraine includes a military exercise that begun Monday called "Sea Breeze," which is taking place days after Russia launched major military drills in the region involving nearly 150,000 troops, dueling shows of force that underscore the tensions between NATO and Moscow, CNN reports.
That tension has been further fueled in recent days as the U.S. has accused Moscow of a wide range of activities, including cyber-attacks on organizations involved in coronavirus vaccine development and using Russian mercenaries to destabilize Libya. Reports that Russian operatives offered cash incentives to Taliban-linked militants to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan have further highlighted the tense relationship.
Some 80% of Ukraine's Navy was captured by Russia when its forces seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 with Moscow later annexing the territory, leaving Kyiv with only a single frigate.
As a result, Ukraine had to basically rebuild its Navy from scratch and the U.S. has sought to help that process. The focus of that effort has been on smaller ships that operate closer to shore, giving Ukraine the ability to control its littoral waters, the near shore.
The U.S. has provided two retired Island-class U.S. Coast Guard cutters and new Mark VI patrol boats which are seen as ideal when it comes to operating in the shallow waters of the Sea of Azov.
A U.S. defense official told CNN that Kyiv is in the process of acquiring three more Island Class Coast Guard cutters with Ukraine's government paying for the retrofitting of the mothballed ships which are being transferred as part of the excess defense articles program.
The Pentagon recently announced plans to provide Kyiv with several Mark VI patrol boats and the State department also recently approved the sale of 16 additional patrol boats to Ukraine, six of which will be paid for through a U.S. assistance program with the remainder being purchased using Ukraine's own defense funds.
While the patrol boats come armed with remote-controlled cannons, U.S. defense officials tell CNN that the U.S. is actively considering arming the vessels with even more firepower, shipborne missiles capable of targeting enemy warships.
"We are interested in arming their patrol boats with missiles," a U.S. defense official told CNN.
The enhanced armaments are seen as particularly important given Ukraine's tensions with Russia in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In 2018, Russian forces seized three Ukrainian vessels and captured 24 Ukrainian sailors following a clash in the Kerch Strait connecting the two said seas and being the sole access route for ships traveling to Ukraine's eastern port cities.
The Sea of Azov has a maximum depth of only 14 meters and is therefore much too shallow for most warships to operate in, making it the ideal environment for the Mark VI-type patrol boats to operate.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is also pursuing the development of an anti-ship missile of its own, the indigenous developed Neptune cruise missile, a larger weapon which can be fired from shore but would likely be too large for the U.S.-supplied ships.
U.S. officials have long-accused Russia of building up its military forces in Crimea, stationing additional aircraft, warships, and missiles that can threaten countries in the region, making U.S. efforts to strengthen allies in the region more imperative.
American military advisers are also advising Ukrainian naval officials on how to retain and recruit navy personnel. "They are moving from what essentially was an old Soviet mandatory service model to an entirely volunteer-based western model and that's taken some time, they've had to work through that," the U.S. defense official told CNN.
Training and exercises are also seen as critical to helping bolster Ukraine's navy and exercise Sea Breeze which takes place in the Black Sea is seen as a critical component.