Ukraine would win the war faster if it had permission to fire British and other Western weapons against targets deep inside Russia, the head of the Ukrainian navy has signalled.
Vice Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa told Sky News the course of the entire conflict would have been very different had Ukrainian forces been allowed to use western munitions without restrictions from the very beginning.
The UK, US and other allies only agreed to start giving Ukraine longer-range missiles last year. Ukrainian forces have used them to hit targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine but not deep inside Russia amid concerns about escalation.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Ukrainian commander also said his navy would gladly take charge of two British warships the Royal Navy may reportedly have to retire early because of a shortage of sailors amid a recruitment crisis.
“We must have the capabilities to make sure that Russia will give up forever the thought of even looking in Ukraine’s direction, including at sea,” Vice Admiral Neizhpapa said.
Despite limited naval assets, the Ukrainian armed forces – supported by the UK and other allies – have been conducting a David versus Goliath-style operation against Russia’s much larger Black Sea Fleet in and around occupied Crimea, destroying ships, infrastructure and even taking out a submarine.
A one-fingered salute to Russian flagship
Souvenirs of the sea war decorate a room at a secret location in Odesa, southern Ukraine, where the admiral gave his interview earlier this month.
Displayed in one corner is the lid of a tube of a Ukrainian missile used to sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion.
The attack on the Moskva on 14 April 2022 remains one of Ukraine’s most iconic triumphs.
Painted on one side of the lid is an image of the Russian ship in flames with a Ukrainian commando standing in the foreground giving it a one-fingered salute.
The sinking of the Moskva “achieved a military goal, but also a political one”, said Vice Admiral Neizhpapa, proudly holding the unusual piece of artwork, which is about the size of a very large plate.
“At that moment, Ukraine understood that Moscow can be defeated.”
Another piece of history is mounted on a wall in a wooden frame, encased by glass.
It contains the arming pin for a British Storm Shadow missile fired from a Ukrainian Su-24 bomber aircraft against Russia’s naval headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol in Crimea on 22 September 2023 – another landmark strike.
‘More than two dozen Russian vessels destroyed’
Very little is known in public about the secret operations conducted by Ukraine’s military, with support from western allies, against the Russian navy, but they involve a range of different modes of attack, including underwater drones, western missiles and even jet skis.
“Our successes during 2022 and 2023 were a result of difficult but innovative decisions, which did not exist before,” the naval commander said.
Ukraine is believed to have destroyed more than two dozen Russian vessels, forcing Moscow to pull back a number of warships from Crimea to the Russian port of Novorossiysk.
The action has made it harder for Russia to enforce a naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, imposed to reduce Kyiv’s ability to export grain.
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Previous attack methods may no longer work, admiral warns
The admiral said the sea war has two goals – to stop the Russian navy from being able to attack Ukraine and to enable ships to access Ukrainian ports.
But with the full-scale invasion about the enter its third year, he warned previous methods of attack may no longer work.
“The enemy is adapting, and we must also adapt. A modern war is a war of technologies. Whoever wins in the technological sense will have victory,” he said.
‘Putin behaves like a small-scale gangster’
Something that could help Ukraine would be the ability to use long-range western weapons, such as Britain’s Storm Shadow missile or American ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems), against military targets inside Russia.
Asked whether he believed Ukraine could win the war faster if given such permission, the commander said: “Of course, the sooner the armed forces have the necessary battle capabilities and certain capabilities to destroy the enemy’s infrastructure facilities, the sooner we will win.”
He added: “As a military man, I will say the following: the enemy, knowing the battle capabilities of [our] armed forces, reacts accordingly to our actions. Therefore, of course, if we had limitless capabilities, believe me, the war would have played out totally differently.
“If Ukraine had certain types of long-range weapons which can be used deeper at the enemy territory, of course, the enemy would have behaved differently, including on the battlefield.
“Putin behaves like a small-scale gangster who knows that if he is matched blow for blow, he will not start a fight… If he understands that Ukraine can fight back and make him really feel pain, of course, he will give all this up. This is all.”
‘The navy needs warships’
Western allies have – according to public comments made by military and political leaders – restricted the use of their weapons to within Ukraine and Russian-held Ukrainian territory because of concern about igniting a direct war between Moscow and the West, even though Russian forces launch strikes against Ukrainian troops from locations across Russia.
As well as giving missiles, British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps revealed in December that two Royal Navy minehunter ships would be transferred to the Ukrainian navy, though the ships will not be able to enter Ukrainian ports until the war ends because of restricted access to the Black Sea.
Britain is also reportedly considering retiring two Type 23 frigates because of a shortage of sailors.
Asked whether his navy would be interested in HMS Westminster and HMS Argyll if that did happen, Vice Admiral Neizhpapa said: “Of course, the Navy needs warships, because we understand that there is no navy without ships. This is why, if such a decision is taken, concerning the possibility of handing over two frigates to the [Ukrainian] Navy, we will be very happy.”