WASHINGTON – Following a December 2018 incident at the mouth of the Sea of Azov between Russia and Ukrainian forces, the United States has accelerated its assistance to Ukraine’s maritime forces.

The Kerch Strait became a flashpoint when Russian coast guard vessels first rammed a Ukrainian tugboat, then later fired on two accompanying gunboats, attempting to transit the strait. The incident resulted in 24 Ukrainian service members, along with their three boats, being taken into Russian custody. Both the sailors and boats were returned to Ukraine last fall after months in Russia.

In June, the U.S. State Department announced it had approved the sale of up to 16 Mark VI Patrol Boats to Ukraine. The Mark VI is the same heavily armed boat used by the U.S. Navy’s Riverines. The U.S. version packs two stabilized, remote-operated, optically guided MK 50, .50-caliber Gun Weapon Systems; two MK 38 Mod 2 (25mm) Gun Weapon Systems (also remotely operated with an advanced optics system); and two crew-served .50-caliber machine guns.

The boat can sustain a firefight for up to 45 minutes, an operator told Defense News in 2019. The deal is worth about $600 million. The sale includes 32 MSI Seahawk A2 gun systems; 20 electro-optic/infrared radar, or FLIR systems; 16 Long Range Acoustic Device 5-kilometer range loudspeaker systems; 16 identification, friend or foe systems; 40 MK44 30mm cannons; and unspecified communications and support equipment.

But the pending Mark VI sale isn’t the only improvement to Ukraine’s maritime capabilities. The move follows two Mark VIs that were given to Ukraine as part of a recently announced $250 million aid package and the recent transfer of two Island-class patrol boats from the U.S. Coast Guard. Those generally come equipped with a 25mm gun and two .50-caliber machine guns. A further three Island-class boats are in negotiations.

The U.S. Navy is also helping Ukraine develop an intelligence and reconnaissance program for increasing their ability to surveil the waters in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, according to a source familiar with the program who spoke on background. The program would also help Ukraine work through procurement and training issues for their maritime forces.

Ukraine in June took on the status of a NATO “enhanced opportunities partner,” which means “Ukraine will benefit from tailor-made opportunities to help sustain such contributions. This includes enhanced access to interoperability programmes and exercises, and more sharing of information, including lessons learned,” a NATO press release said.

For the U.S., that status change will mean a deeper relationship between Ukraine and U.S. 6th Fleet, especially when it comes to cooperation in the Black Sea, where the U.S. patrols regularly.

“Ukraine is now one of six enhanced-opportunity partner nations for NATO, alongside Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden, and I might add, that’s pretty good company,” said Adm. James Foggo, head of Naval Forces Europe, in a recent podcast. “Each of these partners has a tailor-made relationship with NATO based on its areas of mutual interest.

“So, bottom line, security in the Black Sea remains one of our mutual interests. This is why we regularly operate in the Black Sea. Both U.S. and NATO forces routinely operate there to send a message that we will uphold international law and norms. Our collective efforts will lead to a better and safer Ukraine, which means a better and safer Black Sea for all of us.”