Amid the riots, reports of human rights abuses, and fear of a new Cold War during the Crimean crisis earlier this year, you might recall the plight of Ukraine's military dolphins, which were seized by Russian forces when they overtook Sevastopol, the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
A product of Cold War paranoia, the Soviet-era dolphin program allegedly trained them to distinguish between Soviet and American submarines, detect and attack enemy swimmers with knives on their heads, and act as suicide bombers.
They haven't been in much use since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and of late had mostly helped provide therapy to autistic and emotionally disturbed children. One might expect that the cetaceans' presumed knife-wielding and mine-sniffing skills have grown a bit rusty in the interim.
Well, Ukraine wants them back anyway.
Ukrainian authorities argue that the dolphins, unlike their human naval counterparts, were not given the choice of staying with Ukraine or defecting to Russia. Russia returned military equipment that it had seized from Ukraine, and Ukraine's position is that the dolphins shouldn't be exempted. It has a facility near Crimea where the dolphins can be housed during the summer while a proper military home is made for them elsewhere.
Soon after obtaining them, Russia reportedly devised big plans for the dolphins.
"The oceanarium's engineers are developing new instruments for new applications to boost the operational efficiency of the dolphins underwater," an anonymous employee of the Sevastopol aquarium told Russian media outlet RIA Novosti in March. "Our experts have developed new devices, which convert the detection of objects by the dolphins' underwater sonar to a signal on an operator's monitor."
Ukraine essentially shrugged in response to this report when it surfaced.
"In my opinion, dolphins are not a military asset," a spokesman for the Ukrainian military told the Washington Post. But his superiors have meanwhile evidently reconsidered this coolness. Possession of the dolphins has become a sore spot of Ukrainian pride.
It remains to be seen how Russia will respond to Ukraine's demand… or whether it will bother to respond at all.
In 2000 the BBC reported that the dolphins in Sevastopol had been sold to Iran —along with sea lions, seals, walruses, and even a beluga whale. The Ukrainian military reportedly could no longer afford to feed and care for them. Some dolphins were apparently left behind, however.
The United States has the only other known military marine mammal program in the world. Its 75 battle dolphins are located in San Diego, have been used in Vietnam and Iraq, and are still used to patrol naval bases. The US Navy denies that they're trained to gut enemy frogmen or carry bombs on their backs.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons