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Will ‘seized’ Ukrainian combat dolphins switch allegiance to Russia?

© US Navy - A US military dolphin

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-29

The Russian military seizure of Ukrainian military assets in Crimea took an unusual turn this week with reports of Moscow’s takeover of a secret combat dolphins programme.

The dolphins first hit the headlines on Wednesday, when the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the combat dolphin programme in the Crimean city of Sevastopol will be “preserved and redirected toward the interests of the Russian navy".

In other words, if the Russian news agency was to be believed, Sevastopol’s military dolphins had switched allegiance from Kiev to Moscow.

Not so, said a former Ukrainian defence minister. Ukraine’s dolphins could be seized, but they would not be traitorous.

"Dolphins get used to the people they work with," said Yevhen Marchuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and army general, in an interview with the Washington Post. “It's not so easy for them to change allegiance."

Soviet-era programme runs out of funds in Ukraine

The military dolphin programme has been shrouded in secrecy since it was launched by Soviet authorities in the 1960s. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine acquired the cetaceans and their handlers. That’s where they stayed until this month’s Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula.

While the Ukrainian Defence Ministry confirmed to CNN that the country has an ocean dolphin facility, officials declined to provide details, saying they're classified.

Dolphins can detect sounds and objects in murky waters that human beings can't, making them uniquely effective at highlighting dangers on the sea floor. The Soviet-trained dolphins were apparently trained to kill frogmen with special harpoons fitted to their backs, or drag them to the surface to be captured, according to reports, which have never been officially confirmed.

The only other country known to train military dolphins is the US, which runs a marine mammal program in San Diego, California.

But Ukraine’s military dolphin unit had been suffering from a lack of funding and resources in recent years. In 2000, Boris Zhurid, a former submariner who ran the training program in Sevastopol, told the BBC the lack of tourists in winter meant there was no money for fish or nutritional supplements. Zhurid reportedly sold 27 marine animals including walruses, sea lions, and a Beluga whale to Iran, saying he had run out of food and medicine for them at the Sevastopol base.

It is unclear whether the animals were used or are still in the service of the Iranian military.

Date created : 2014-03-28

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