During two years of its occupation of Crimea Russia has explicitly revealed to both the Ukrainians and the world community that its true intentions behind the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula were to make Crimea into a strong fortress on the Black Sea and into a base for militarily threatening the European Union countries. For the Kremlin, “protection of the Russians” has never been a priority but, rather, a pretext to secure its self-interests and satisfy imperial ambitions.
Since the first days of its military aggression in eastern Ukraine, Russia has been deliberately “stuffing” the peninsula with personnel and military equipment. While at the end of 2013 the Russian Federation had some 14,000 military personnel, over 30 warships and vessels moored at leased berths, 20 Su-24M and Su-24MR and An-26 aircraft and up to a dozen Ka-27 helicopters (based at Kacha and Hvardiyske airbases) deployed in the Crimean peninsula, those numbers increased to 24.500 military personnel, 30 MBTs, 260 armored fighting vehicles, 80 aircraft; 40 helicopters; 80 cannon artillery systems (both self-propelled and towed); 40 MLRS launcher units and 24 S-300 SAM systems as of August 2015, according to data from the Information Resistance volunteer group.
Russian Black Sea Fleet Commander Admiral Alexander Vitko, in a statement released in July 2015, said Russia now has a self-sufficient force grouping deployed in Crimea, including newly organized coastal defense units, an anti-ship missile brigade, a logistics support brigade, air defense (SAM) and artillery regiments, an independent naval engineering regiment, an NBC regiment, two aviation regiments and others.
The Russian military authorities redeployed to Crimea a battery of Pantsir-S1 Air Defense Missile-Gun vehicles that were delivered to the Russian Army as early as a few years ago. Designed to engage aerial targets and light armored vehicles, they could also be used to target military and industrial facilities [in mainland Ukraine].
Alongside this, Russia deployed to Crimea its Bastion anti-ship missile systems that are capable of engaging different classes and types of surface ships, as well as ground-based targets. A single Bastion battery armed with Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles is able to provide cover protection to a 600-km long coastline. Having an advantage of full autonomy of combat use (“fire and forget”), not only is this missile capable of independently changing its assigned altitude and flight path, thus confusing counter measures, but it can make its active radar seeker completely mute, thereby making its detection and tracking even more difficult.
Bastion anti-ship missile systems
Russia has also redeployed to the peninsula a number of coastal defense missile systems BAL (SSC-6 Sennight) that were deployed with its Caspian Flotilla previously. A BAL missile battalion was subsequently relocated to the city of Sevastopol and included into the complement of the newly organized 15th Independent Coastal Defense Missile Brigade. With this addition to its missile component, the Russian Navy now has three fully operational BAL missile battalions, two deployed with its Black Sea Fleet and one with the Pacific Fleet. (The BAL, designed for ensuring territorial waters security, is a vehicle-based system carrying Kh-35/Kh-35E and Kh-35U/Kh-35UE anti-ship missiles (ASM) housed in storage/transport-launch canisters. Kh-35E and Kh-35U missiles have effective ranges of 120 km and 260 km respectively, and can be fired at a rate of 3 seconds between launches, from distances no longer than 10 km off the coast.
Coastal defense missile system BAL (SSC-6 Sennight)
Unconfirmed reports have it Russia also deployed to Crimea a battalion of Club-K cruise missile systems. The container-looking weapon system can be fired from a container ship, a train cart, or a container truck. By appearing externally as a simple container, the Club-K (known by NATO as the SS-N-27 “Sizzler”) can be positioned covertly, ready to unleash a surprise attack, probably firing simultaneously from more than one container. It can destroy both sea-based and ground based targets from ranges up to 300 km.
What’s more, the Russians reinforced the Peninsula’s defenses with batteries of S-300 SAM systems which are capable of intercepting and destroying aerial as well as space-based targets.
Finally and most importantly, the Kremlin is looking to deploy a Tu-22M3 strategic bomber regiment and other aircraft units to Hvardiyske airfield 18 km north of Simferopol, and to make upgrades to the already deployed inventories of combat aircraft, including Su-27 fighters, Tu-142 and Il-38 antisubmarine warfare patrol airplanes as well as Ka-27 and Ka-29 helicopters, this all scheduled for 2016. The planned deployment of Tu-22M3 aircraft is perhaps most worrying given its operational radius of approximately 2,400 km and the ability to carry Kh-22 cruise missiles that can fly to 500 km at 4,000 km/h as well as Kh-15 missiles that are capable of speeds of up to 6,000 km/h and operational ranges of up to 250 km. Both missiles can carry nuclear warheads. The combat range of and the range of cruise missiles carried by the Tu-22M3 bomber effectively give it the ability to attack targets anywhere in Europe.
Tu-22M3 strategic bomber regiment
If the rumors were true that Vladimir Putin, in August 2014, approved the deployment of short-range nuclear capable Iskander missile systems to Crimea, this would make Ukraine and Eastern European countries several times more insecure, given that the Iskander can effectively engage weapon emplacements, missile defense and air defense infrastructures, airplanes and helicopters on ground, command posts and communications nodes, as well as high value civilian targets at ranges up to 500 km. It’s anyone’s guess which of the Iskander modifications Moscow is going to deploy to the peninsula, but we should not exclude that this might well be the Iskander-K version that fires R-500 cruise missiles. The R-500 is autonomously guided up to impact, and it has the capability to follow the curvature of the terrain while flying at extremely low altitudes. This, combined with its ability to deliver its lethal payload to a 2,000 km range, makes it a potential threat to Western European countries.
Iskander missile system
The deadly combination of Tu-22M3 missile carrying bombers and R-500 Iskander-K short-range ballistic missiles deployed to Crimea gives the unpredictable Kremlin a powerful strike force that threatens or is likely to put in jeopardy peace and quiet of the Black Sea region and all of Europe.
The Kremlin justifies its military buildup by NATO’s eastward expansion, the deployment of US missile defense batteries closer to Russian borders, NATO’s redeployment of some of its military capabilities to direct vicinity of western fringes of Russia (particularly to the Baltic States), increased number of NATO military drills in Eastern Europe, and other excuses. But Moscow, however, is playing with facts when it doesn’t say anything about the military threat coming from itself and is reluctant to accept that Europe is doing this all in an attempt to defend itself from perceived Russian threat. The following examples explicitly reveal which direction military aggression can be expected from, and who is really in defense.
In September 2014, Russia staged its biggest post-Soviet military drills in the Far East, dubbed“Vostok-2014,” involving about 150,000 personnel, up to 10,000 AFV vehicles, over 600 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and over 80 naval ships. In 2015, also in September, the Russian military held large-scale drills that took place at 20 sites across the country’s Central Military District, involving overall 95,000 personnel, about 7,000 military vehicles, over 150 aircraft and 20 naval vessels. NATO, for its part, held Trident Juncture 2015 from 28 September to 6 November, its largest military exercise ever since the end of the Cold War. The drills involved as few as 36,000 personnel from over 30 NATO and partner nations, spanning Western and Northern Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and Canada.
Where is the threat really coming from?
This all is taking place at the time when Russia has done virtually nothing to improve the lives of average civilians in Crimea and to turn the peninsula into a “Russian Las Vegas" dreamed of by so many Crimean residents who voted in the secession “referendum” in March 2014. The reality turned far worse for Russian-annexed peninsula, with roads deteriorating quickly in absence of care, and Western businesses, money and technology outflowing from the region because of Russian occupation. Well-established, long standing supply chains from mainland Ukraine that used to supply the peninsula with 80 percent of its fresh water, food and electricity needs have been disrupted. Russian authorities are grumbling that Crimea has become one of the largest recipients of the federal budget resources, with 85 percent of its budget needs being provided by the Russian government, as Novaya Gazeta reported. This compares with Chechnya at 82 percent and 87 percent for Ingushetia, Russia’s most subsidized region.
All projects aimed to make Crimea more self-sufficient in terms of budget remained unmaterialized desires with no probability of being materialized any time soon in the future. Yet military personnel are not among those neglected. A new-project garrison town is now being built for members of the Black Sea Fleet’s personnel not far from Simferopol. The town project takes account of modern trends in terms of the military’s accommodation and housing conditions, social infrastructure, vehicles’ accommodations etc, and 2,109 apartments in a newly built 50-house neighborhood in Cossacks’ Bay, Sevastopol, are now ready for immediate occupation.
The facts therefore speak for themselves. Crimea has been made into a Black Sea fortress, and a base for westward expansion of the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions and for ensuring Russian presence in the Mediterranean. The population of the peninsula, stupefied by Russian propaganda, have now returned to a Soviet-style nation for which they are so nostalgic, but the one in a far worse state than they thought and with bleak prospects for the future.