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16 March, 2021  ▪  

Barracks in place of a resort

How Russia is turning occupied Crimea into a military base

Seven years after the Russian invasion of Crimea, the whole world knows for sure that the occupation of the peninsula was not a spontaneous reaction of the Russian Southern Military District Command to the unstable situation in Ukraine, but a deliberate, pre-planned invasion operation. From the outset, the Russians knew exactly what they would do next: which authorities would manage the occupied territory, how and by whom they would be staffed, and how they would be given legitimacy. The same applied to the task force that was to be formed on the occupied peninsula – there were calculations as to what should be its strength, subordination, command and control system, and what resources were required.

Occupation contingent

The build-up of Crimean Group of Forces was planned based on units and formations of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) stationed in Crimea and Sevastopol until 2014 in accordance with the Status of Forces (SOFA) Agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation governing the terms of presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine. The basic structure of the occupation force was modeled on the pre-1991 organization of the Black Sea Fleet and other military formations of the Soviet Armed Forces on the peninsula. This required minimal effort to restore the bases and control systems. However during the operation, adjustments had to be made to the plans.

Dynamics of militarization of the temporary occupied Crimea by the Russian Federation. Analysis from the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the OSCE 

In order to eliminate social tensions and stave off a possible “fifth column” formation made up of servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the rear, it was decided to seamlessly “integrate” the traitors who agreed to side with the enemy from the current local organizational structure of the Armed Forces of Ukraine into the Russian Armed Forces. Secondly, while Ukraine was recovering from the first blow and pulling up resources to resist in the Donbas, there was a need to form a task force in the north of Crimea. Its operational role should have been to penetrate the defense of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the mainland in case of progressing invasion, or, if the situation changed, to repel a counterattack by Ukrainian troops, if they made an attempt to de-occupy the peninsula. Initially, the task force was assembled from air assault and motorized infantry subunits seconded to the area on short-term deployments, and later replaced by permanent personnel. As the situation unfolded, the Russians had to abandon some of their megalomaniac projects, driven by the constraints of their own military-industrial complex and the changing geopolitical situation. This is how the cross-branch group of Russian occupation forces in Crimea was formed.

According to the Joint Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as of early 2021, the total personnel strength of the Russian Armed Forces in the occupied Crimea was about 32,500 servicemen, including the naval and air component with up to 21,000, and the land force with more than 11,500 people (including those deployed on a rotational basis).

The Commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Nezhipapa, noted: “The Russian Federation has turned the Autonomous Republic of Crimea into a very powerful military base. During these seven years they have increased the operational inventory of surface ships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet by 45%. The total number now stands at 58 vessels, including 13 vessels capable of carrying Kalibr naval cruise missile. According to Nezhipapa, the number of Russian warplanes has more than tripled, the number of helicopters has increased ninefold, the number of tanks has reached almost 40, the number of armored combat vehicles has increased sixfold, and of multiple rocket launchers – 6.5 times.

“Long arm”: the total volley of the missile armament of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea by weight and range. The Ukrainian Week ©

In seven years, the Russians have saturated Crimea with weapons, turning the peninsula from a health resort into an offensive military bridgehead. And they continue to strengthen it. Thus, the military command and political leadership of the Russian Federation recently promised to increase the strength of the military group in Crimea to 45,000 servicemen in the coming years.

Military build-up

Primary attention should be paid to a significant increase in the missile strike potential, mainly due to the ships carrying anti-ship missiles 3M-54 Kalibr-NK/PL (SS-N-27 Sizzler) with a range of 220-300 km, as well as their coastal anti-ship counterparts – 3К60 Bal (SS-C-6 Sennight) with a range a 120 km, and K-300P Bastion (SS-C-5 Stooge) with a range of 300 km. One of the important operational and strategic characteristics of any navy is the “total volley”, which is the weight of explosives delivered in the first volley with all means of the fleet. Today, the total missile volley of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is 73 tons. This is an important parameter that should not only be of concern to the Black Sea basin countries, but also taken into account by NATO partners in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. Why and how such a sharp increase in combat potential was conducted?

Frigate Admiral Grigorovich, Project 11356 lead ship, returns to Sevastopol from combat deployment in the Mediterranean Sea. December 2016. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. CC BY 4.0

Firstly, the Navy’s combat assets were complemented with patrol frigates of Krivak IV class (project 11356Р/М). This once again indicates that the strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea was planned by Russia long before its actual occupation. Krivak IV class is the improvement of Krivak II class (project 1135 Burevestnik), which was developed for the Indian Navy. From 2000 to 2010, six Talwar-class frigates were built for India at the Baltic Shipyard and Kaliningrad Yantar Shipyard in cooperation with the Ukrainian state-owned enterprise Zorya-Mashproekt. Russian authorities deemed the project a success and decided to further develop it for their own navy, so a series of six more ships was laid down in Kaliningrad from 2010 to 2013. Before 2014, Ukrainian gas turbines had been installed on three of them; two years later they returned to Ukraine on enemy ships. However, due to the Ukrainian embargo imposed after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict, three hulls remained unfinished.

Veliky Novgorod, the Russian Improved Kilo class SSK, in the South Bay of Sevastopol. March 2019. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. CC BY 4.0

The second component, which significantly strengthened the missile potential of the Black Sea Fleet was Improved Kilo class submarines (project 636.3). Before 2014, the Russian Black Sea Fleet had only one submarine – Alrosa, an earlier project 877V Kilo-class vessel (another submarine, a Tango-class B-380 could not be accounted as a combat unit because it was constantly under repairs). This was seen as insufficient for the Black Sea, and in 2010 the Russian Navy Command decided to build a series of six submarines under the export Project 636 Varshavyanka, which is an advance of the original Kilo-class project 877. Due to restrictions on the replacement of weapons imposed by Ukraine for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the so-called Geoport of Novorossiysk was chosen as the base for these submarines. The Black Sea Fleet took delivery of the boats for the second half of 2014 to late 2016. Although Novorossiysk is the official permanent station of the newly formed 4th Submarine Brigade, most of the time the submarines are moored in the Southern Bay of Sevastopol.

Buyan-M class missile corvette Serpukhov at the exit from the Sevastopol Bay. March 2016. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. CC BY 4.0

Being constricted in terms of building ships for the far sea zone, Russia in recent years has focused on the rearmament of the Black Sea Fleet with small patrol and missile ships. After all, it is cheaper and faster. Since 2015, the fleet has received six small missile ships of Project  21631 (Buyan-M class corvettes), which are being built for the Black Sea and Baltic Fleets at the Zelenodolsk Shipyard and then ferried by inland waterways to the Azov Sea and further to the Black Sea (the first two of them were delivered to the Baltic Fleet). Grayvoron, the latest delivery so far, joined the fleet on January 30 this year. Black Sea Fleet expects the arrival of one or two more boats of this class in the future.

Together with the missile corvettes, Zelenodolsk shipyard also produces patrol ships for the Black Sea Fleet, in particular of Project 22160 (Vasily Bykov class). Since 2018, the Black Sea Fleet took delivery of four ships of this class. The last one, Sergey Kotov, was launched on January 29, whereas there are totally six units in the series, which are planned to be delivered by the end of 2023. It is important to note that starting from the third hull of the series, these ships are actually being built at the captured Zaliv Shipbuilding yard, located in Kerch, Crimea. This alone should be a reason not only to expand international sanctions against the manufacturer, but also the subject of negotiations between Ukraine and the Black Sea states to restrict the entry of these ships into their territorial sea. Special attention should be given to negotiations with Turkey which should ban these ships from crossing the Black Sea Straits.

Launching ceremony of the project 22160 patrol ship Sergey Kotov at the Zaliv Shipbuilding yard in Kerch. January 2021. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. CC BY 4.0

Overland strike force

The strengthening of the Russian naval forces in the Black Sea is a significant threat to neighbors, whereas the formation of an offensive ground force on the Crimean Peninsula is extremely dangerous for Ukraine.

The strength of ground forces in Crimea (only army units and formations, paratroopers and marines, excluding various paramilitary formations, such as the Russian Guard) is more than 11.5 thousand servicemen, i. e. more than a third of the total military personnel on the peninsula. They have been joined into the separate Naval Army Corps, which is a tactical task force of ground forces, subordinated to the commander of the Navy and capable of conducting military operations both independently and as part of a cross-branch task force of the naval forces. The Russians tried out the concept of subordinating entire territorial grouping of armed forces to the commander of the relevant fleet in the early 2000s in the Baltic Sea basin. Back then, all units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces in the Kaliningrad enclave were subordinated to the Baltic Fleet commander. After the occupation of Crimea, the concept was rolled out in scale – in April 2016, the 11th Army Corps of the Coastal Troops of the Baltic Sea Fleet was formed in Kaliningrad, and in 2017 Black Sea Fleet, Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet got their army corps.

The 22nd Army Corps (headquartered in Simferopol) consists of the following units:

  • 126th Coastal Defense Brigade (military unit 12676, Perevalne, formed on the basis of 36th Coastal Defense Brigade of the Ukrainian Naval Forces which was “integrated” into the Russian Armed Forces);
  • 127th Reconnaissance Brigade (military unit 67606, Sevastopol, formed on the basis of the SIGINT Center of Ukrainian Navy, as well as units of aerial and military reconnaissance);
  • 8th Artillery Regiment (military unit 87714, Perevalne; formed on the basis of 406th Separate Brigade Artillery Group of Ukrainian Navy);
  • 1096th Air Defense Regiment (military unit 83576, Simferopol);
  • 4th Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Regiment (military unit 86862, Sevastopol) and other support units.

The 810th Marine Brigade (Sevastopol) and auxiliary units (usually battalion tactical groups) of airborne and infantry brigades, deployed on a rotational basis a part of the strike task force in the north of Crimea, are also subordinated to the headquarters of the naval Army Corps (up to 1,500 servicemen).

The tasks of the 11th and 22nd Army Corps are similar: conducting defensive and offensive littoral combat operations both independently and in cooperation with the troops of the Western and Southern military districts, respectively. Whereas the main task for the Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet is closing off the Suwałki Corridor, which connects the territory of the Baltic States with Poland and the rest of NATO, the strike force in Crimea is tasked with capturing of Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, as well as with the offensive (counter-offensive) thrust towards Melitopol. In the opinion of the Russian military command, the corps has everything it needs from an armored strike force to a powerful missile and artillery group.

One of the typical signs of preparations for an offensive operation is redeployment of certain specific types of troops – airborne and air assault units, as well as army aircraft closer to the state border (front line). In January 2015, the 39th Helicopter Regiment was formed at Dzhankoi Airfield, consisting of Ka-52 (Hokum B) reconnaissance and attack helicopters (1st squadron), Mi-35 (Hind E) multi-role combat helicopters and Mi-28 (Havoc) attack helicopters (2nd Squadron) and Mi-8TVK (Hip-E) transport and gunship helicopters (3rd Squadron). In 2016-2017, the Russians also wanted to redeploy an air assault battalion of the 97th Regiment of the 7th Air Assault Division to Dzhankoi to form a separate air assault regiment on its basis. For some reason, these plans have not yet been implemented, but the idea of forming a dedicated air assault force structured like “army aviation regiment + air assault regiment” makes sense, and has not been completely shelved.

Hijacked sky

Landing of a pair of Su-30M2 (Flanker-E) multirole fighters at the Belbek airfield arriving from Kuban to Crimea. December 2018. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. CC BY 4.0

During the seven years of occupation, Russia has created a strong aerial defense shield over Crimea with a powerful air wing and ground-based air defense force. In the first place, all Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile regiments which had been armed with S-300PS (SA-10d/e Grumble) surface-to-air missile systems before the occupation were rearmed with new S-400 (SA-21 Growler) systems by the Russians. The footprint of these aerial defense forces increased from 75-150 to 400 km. They are effectively capable to target Ukraine’s strike aircraft before they come within firing range.

The number and fire power of fighter and bomber aviation based at Crimean airfields has also dramatically increased (threefold in terms of number of airplanes). There are now Su-27SM and Su-27P (Flanker-B) interceptor fighters, front-line fighters Su-30M2 (Flanker-C) based at Belbek airfield in Sevastopol. The Gvardeyskoye airfield (near Simferopol) received the two-squadron 37th Mixed Aviation Regiment of the Russian Air Force (a squadron of Su-24M (Fencer-D) attack bombers and a squadron of  Su-25SM (Frogfoot) close air support aircraft counting 12 aircraft each), whereas the 43rd Black Sea Fleet Naval Assault Aviation Regiment operating Su-24M and Su-30SM airplanes was relocated to Novofedorovka airfield (near Saki).

However, the rumors about redeployment of long-range Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) missile bombers to Crimea are apparently nothing more than a “red herring” designed to rattle NATO’s nerves. Until 1991, a whole 2nd Naval Missile Aviation Division of missile carrying bombers had been based in Crimea, at the airfields Gvardeyskoye, Saki-4, Oktyabrskoye and Veseloye. During the Cold War, missile carriers based in Crimean airfields were supposed to strike at NATO allied facilities in the central Mediterranean after reaching the firing altitude over western Bulgaria and Romania (the main target being the 6th US Fleet in Naples). Today, Romania and Bulgaria are members of the Alliance, covered by a reliable allied aerial defense shield. Thus, targets in the Mediterranean Sea are becoming unattainable for Russia’s strategic aviation, whereas to reach the firing range limit without falling into the sights of the enemy air defense assets the Tu-22s from airfields in Crimea would have to climb east in the direction of Kuban and the Sea of Azov, perform a turn and launch missiles over Crimea. Moscow quickly understood this and abandoned the idea. Single Tu-22 flights to Crimea from air bases in central Russia are possible; however, they will be demonstrative in nature and will mainly serve to study the theater of operations by their crews.

Long-range Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) missile bomber taking off. Illustrative photo. Author Dmitriy Pichugin. GFDL

The weakness of the Black Sea Fleet is the lack of modern anti-submarine aircraft fleet. The number of physically and morally obsolete Be-12 (Mail) amphibious aircraft is steadily declining (only five machines of varying combat readiness remain in service with the 318th Separate Mixed Naval Aviation Regiment, Kacha). Russian industry has not been able to come up with a modern replacement. The only long-range IL-38N (May) anti-submarine aircraft relocated in 2017 to Yeisk, cannot replace them.

Nuclear resort

Speaking about the militarization of Crimea, one cannot avoid the much speculated on problem of the presence or absence of nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

In author’s view, the Russian Black Sea Fleet had, has now, and will have nuclear weapons. However, these are tactical nuclear weapons. To understand the issue, a distinction should be made between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). The strategic nuclear triad includes intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear weapons borne by strategic bombers. There have been no strategic nuclear weapons in Crimea. However, naval TNWs could be anything from cruise missiles to torpedoes and rocket-propelled depth charges. There is no material difference between weapons with conventional and nuclear warheads. Almost all modern ground-based aerial defense assets are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads.

There have been tactical nuclear weapons in the Black Sea Fleet. They were stored, serviced and fitted in specialist military units – maintenance and security missile facilities (so called  “C facilities”, e.g. Missile facility 820 in Balaklava and military unit 131889 in the valley of Kara-Koba near the village of Saharna Golovka). After 1994, the ammunition stored in these facilities was taken out, the units were disbanded, whereas Russians started to build a nuclear arsenal in the Krasnodar region.

However, fitting a nuclear warhead is quite different to having such ammunition on board ready for use. According to the combat duty procedure, the Moskva cruiser should have at least eight armed missiles in the main launcher complex, two of them with a nuclear warhead. There are six torpedoes on the Alrosa submarine, including one nuclear-armed. Ukraine was not in a position to check the presence of nuclear weapons on Black Sea Fleet ships stationed in Sevastopol Bay. However this could be figured out through indirect signs.

The 6th Division of the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense – Black Sea Fleet Special Department. Sevastopol, 27 Lenina st.. Photo by Wikimapia.

In Sevastopol, tucked away in the shades of a small park, there is an inconspicuous two-story building at the address 27 Lenina st. It houses the so called “Black Sea Fleet Special Department”. The “special department”, or the 6th Division of the MoD’s 12th Main Directorate, is the unit responsible for the operation of nuclear munitions in the fleet, ensuring nuclear safety, physical protection and anti-terrorist security of nuclear facilities. Another indirect sign is that among the helicopters of the 872nd Anti-Submarine Helicopter Regiment (based on Kacha airfield) there is one unique machine, a Ka-27E Sovetnik-SV (Helix).

This is a special radiation reconnaissance helicopter. It is equipped with extremely sensitive equipment allowing for detecting leaks of radioactive materials and presence of nuclear munitions on board of a ship at a distance of up to 3 km. Until 2014, the Ka-27E made a weekly flyover of the Sevastopol bays, and continues to do so to this day. These signs provide grounds for certain conclusions.

Assessing the military group on the occupied peninsula, we should not forget that Crimea is not a sovereign state, and the Black Sea Fleet is not its armed forces. The Crimean group of troops is a part of the army of the Russian Federation. And in the event of an armed conflict, they will not fight autonomously, but will act jointly, according to a single plan and in cooperation with other units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces.

 

Pavlo Lakiichuk, Head of the security programs of the Centre for Global Studies ‘Strategy XXI’

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