Ukraine is home to some of the more adventurous military blue-sky thinking, mostly hangovers from the Soviet era. As well as a 160-meter high, 500-meter long radar, that was supposed to be able to warn of nuclear attack, it also has a secret programme that trains sea mammals to carry out military tasks. Ukraine has a dolphin army at the Crimean military dolphin centre, trained and ready for deployment.
Or at least it did, but after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the dolphins were captured. Ukraine demanded their return, but Russian forces refused. Some believed the Russians were planning to retrain the dolphins as Russian soldiers, with a source telling Russian agency RIA Novosti that Russian engineers were “developing new aquarium technologies for new programmes to more efficiently use dolphins underwater”.
Four years later and it seems little has come of these supposed Russian plans and most of the dolphins have died, but this week Boris Babin, the Ukrainian government’s representative in Crimea, claimed that they did so defending their country. He said that the dolphins died “patriotically”, refusing to follow orders or eat food provided by the “Russian invaders” and that the hunger strike led to their eventual death.
He told the Ukranian Obozrevatel newspaper that the dolphins were more honourable than some human soldiers: “The trained animals refused not only to interact with the new Russian coaches, but refused food and died some time later. Many Ukrainian soldiers took their oath and loyalty much less seriously than these dolphins.”
Others have since denied the claims and blamed Ukraine for their poor treatment of the dolphins. On the Russian-owned radio station Sputnik, Ukrainian politician Vladimir Oleinik claimed that politicians in Kiev are always looking to blame “the hand of Moscow” when sober-minded people can see this is just propaganda and rumours, and that the dolphins were not especially looked after under any regime.
Many Ukrainian soldiers took their oath and loyalty much less seriously than these dolphins.
Russian Duma deputy Dmitry Belik has since claimed, rather less excitingly, that all the combat dolphins that served in the naval forces of Ukraine were sold to commercial entities or died of natural causes before 2014. He said there “is no question of any Ukrainian patriotism” because Ukraine had already demilitarised the dolphins, and for some time they had only engaged in commercial activities.
Dolphins have been observed displaying similar “loyal” characteristics to dogs, swimming up enthusiastically to people that they have met before. Occasionally captive dolphins have been known to refuse food when a tank companion dies and there have also been claims that dolphins have stopped themselves breathing after being separated from humans they had formed a bond with. So perhaps the Ukrainian claims aren’t as far-fetched as they sound.
There is plenty of disinformation floating around, and it is difficult to independently verify what really went on at a secret dolphin training facility in Crimea. We do know that in 2016, Russians put out a public tender to purchase five dolphins – and eventually bought them from Moscow’s Utrish Dolphinarium – although they never explained why. Perhaps they thought they could persuade their existing pod of Ukrainian dolphins to switch sides.