- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
When Russia took the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, they also took the country’s combat dolphins, which were stationed in a navy oceanarium in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Now, Ukraine wants them back.
"The military dolphins need to be returned to our country in the same way that Russia returned Ukraine’s seized military equipment," said Dmitry Yunusov, first deputy head of the Henichesk regional state administration, a district in southern Ukraine. On June 21, the Henichesk district opened a new dolphinarium that can host the dolphins. No word yet on whether Russia will return the mammals.
In an email to Foreign Policy, a spokesman for the Russian embassy declined to comment. The Ukrainian embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Apart from being able to identify underwater obstacles, guide ships, and reportedly even attack enemy divers, the dolphins have doubled as a useful propaganda tool for Moscow since planting the Russian flag in Crimea. In March, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Russia would step up its dolphin combat operations with additional funding and new technology.
But the marine-life military buildup hasn’t stopped there. In an April homage to the arms race of the Cold War, the Russian newspaper Izvestia fabricated a story that the U.S. Navy planned to deploy 20 military dolphins and 10 sea lions in the Black Sea to test new equipment. The Izvestia report went so far as to include a fictional quote from a U.S. Navy spokesman. Perhaps the reporter is pining for a mammalian military buildup in the Black Sea.
During the Cold War, both the U.S. and Soviet navies ran marine mammal programs. During the Gulf War, American dolphins were deployed in the Persian Gulf to protect American and Kuwaiti vessels. The American program continues but Ukraine’s Soviet successor program struggled to stay afloat until Russia took the Crimean facilities in March.
So far neither the Ukrainian public nor other officials have taken up Yunusov’s call to return the pilfered dolphins but keep your eyes peeled for the inevitable hashtag: #BringBackOurDolphins.