Ukraine’s killer dolphins will never surrender, a former defense minister says


Hull Technician Fireman Stefan Gingerich, of  Naval Special Clearance Team One, gives Katrina, a Marine Mammal System dolphin, some positive reinforcement during an exercise in the Pacific. (File photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

You know those combat dolphins that Russia reportedly captured from the Ukrainian military? If they've been seized, Moscow shouldn't expect them to cooperate, a former Ukrainian defense minister told The Washington Post on Thursday.

The Kremlin has plans to use the cetaceans — captured during the invasion of Crimea — for its own military operations, according to a widely circulated report Wednesday from Russian state media. The report took off on the Internet, but so far, nobody — not even the Ukrainian military — has been able to independently verify the claim.

News of dolphin prisoners has not reached Kiev, where there has been little enough news about the future of the thousands of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea. Russia cut communications to the region early in its takeover, and local Ukrainian forces have been reduced to using cellphones to communicate with Kiev.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, said reporters have been calling him all day about the plight of the dolphins. It's true there's a dolphinarium in Sevastopol that, in the past, has been used for military purposes, he said. But in recent years it has been used to provide therapy for children and medical patients.

"In my opinion, dolphins are not a military asset," he said.

A call to the dolphinarium was promptly answered, but as a reporter began speaking, the line went dead.

Dolphin units were established by the Soviet Union as early as the 1960s, during a Cold War-era flipper race with the United States. The U.S. Navy still has its dolphins; Washington had them on standby in the run-up to the Iraq War to detect mines and other underwater objects in the Persian Gulf.

But Ukraine's dolphin unit had fallen apart in recent years because of lack of financing and attention -- just like the rest of the military, Yevhen Marchuk, the former Ukrainian defense minister and army general, said Thursday.

Ukraine sold off several of its dolphins to Iran more than 10 years ago, along with a handful of sea lions and walruses, because it couldn't afford to feed the animals, according to the BBC. The lack of tourists in the wintertime meant there was no money for fish or nutritional supplements, the dolphins' trainer, Boris Zhurid, told the BBC in 2000.

But if Russia has taken the dolphins prisoner, Marchuk said, he doubts the animals would help the Russians with intelligence.

"Dolphins get used to the people they work with," he said. "It's not so easy for them to change allegiance."

Carol Morello and Kathy Lally contributed to this report.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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