Twenty-five years ago, on September 11, 1996, two Ukrainian naval vessels – the Hetman Sahaidachny (a frigate) and the Kostiantyn Olshansky (a landing ship) – arrived at the U.S. Naval Base in Norfolk, Va., making it the first time that Ukrainian naval vessels (representing an independent Ukraine, flying Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow banner) visited a U.S. port. The weeklong visit included joint naval landing exercises, shore excursions for the sailors, a weekend open house for American visitors and an evening concert by the military band aboard the Sahaidachny.
The commanders of the U.S. naval base, led by Rear Adm. Bill Cole, greeted the arrival of the two Ukrainian vessels at Pier 5 at the U.S. Naval Base. They were joined by Embassy of Ukraine staff (led by Ambassador of Ukraine Yuri Shcherbak), members of the Ukrainian American community, formations of U.S. seamen and a U.S. Navy band.
Sailing three weeks from Sevastopol, the Ukrainian sailors were praised during the official welcoming ceremonies for their courage in the face of stormy seas.
Adm. Cole, noting the significance of the occasion, remarked, “It shows that the Ukrainian Navy has come a long way … to achieve a new partnership with the United States Navy.”
It was noted that Adm. Cole’s remarks were translated from English into Russian, underscoring the need for continued work for Ukrainian identity to be respected by U.S. officials as being different from Russian, where Russian was the default during the Soviet era.
“This is a unique event, as we are witnessing a new dimension of our bilateral relations in the fields of defense and security,” said Ambassador Shcherbak. Ukraine’s deepening relationship with the U.S. in the departments of defense “have served as an example for other U.S. and Ukrainian departments, ministries and agencies,” he added. Ukraine was the first former Soviet republic to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, Mr. Shcherbak continued, saying, “Today, we are forging a new partnership, a trans-Atlantic community stretching from the Black Sea to the Atlantic, to which both our nations belong. Let Norfolk, Sevastopol and other U.S. and Ukrainian seaports become the havens of real partnership and friendship between our sailors and peoples.”
Capt. Volodymyr Kuzmin, deputy chief of staff of the Ukrainian Navy, said the historic arrival of Ukraine’s naval vessels in the U.S. was made possible by Ukraine asserting its own independence, and he thanked the U.S. Navy for helping to organize and provide support in what was the Ukrainian Navy’s first trans-Atlantic voyage.
Included among the representatives of the Ukrainian American community during the visit were the Very Rev. Stefan Zencuch (St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Silver Spring, Md.) and Olena Boyko (a noted open-sea sailor, who was instrumental in working with Ukraine’s Embassy to organize local activities for the Ukrainian sailors).
On September 17, on the eve of the ships’ scheduled departure from Norfolk, the Ukrainian sailors received a gift from Baltimore Ukrainian American community members, Taras Charchalis and the Selfreliance Baltimore Federal Credit Union. Mr. Charchalis arranged for a local immigrant farmer (who was willing to lower his prices to a level the sailors could afford) to deliver fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce for purchase. Mr. Charchalis also worked with Selfreliance Baltimore to buy a stockpile of varenyky at St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Baltimore, and delivered the haul to feed the sailors of the two ships before they departed.
The U.S. continues to support Ukraine’s efforts to rebuild its naval forces and assets, including the regular participation of both countries in the NATO-led Sea Breeze naval exercises in the Black Sea (this year’s Sea Breeze included participants from 32 countries). Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 significantly reduced Ukraine’s naval capabilities.
Source: “Ukrainian Navy makes historic first U.S. port visit,” by Yaro Bihun, The Ukrainian Weekly, September 22, 1996.