Barracks instead of a resort. How Russia is turning the occupied Crimea into a military base

By Pavlo Lakiychuk, Head of military programs of the Centre for Global Studies Strategy XXI

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 District Command to the unstable situation in Ukraine, but a deliberate, pre-planned invasion operation. Starting it, the Russians knew exactly what they would do next: which authorities would rule the occupied territory, how and by whom they would be staffed, and how they would be legalized. The same applied to the grouping of troops and forces that was to be formed on the occupied peninsula – there were calculations as to what should be its composition, subordination, system of government and what resources are needed for this.

 

Occupation contingent

The Crimean group of troops was planned to be built-up based on units and formations of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) stationed in Crimea and Sevastopol until 2014 in accordance with the Agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation On the status and conditions of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine. The basic structure was the organization of the Black Sea Fleet and other military formations of the USSR Armed Forces until 1991 – this required minimal effort to restore the base and control system. But during the operation, adjustments were made to previous plans.

First, to extinguish social tensions and not create a "fifth column" of servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the rear, it was decided to painlessly "integrate" into the Russian Armed Forces traitors who agreed to side with the enemy in the existing organizational conflict in the Armed Forces. Secondly, while Ukraine was recovering from the first blow and began to resist in the East, there was a need to form a group of forces in the north of Crimea. Its task should be to strike deep into the defense of the Armed Forces on the mainland, or, if the situation changes, to repel a counterattack by Ukrainian troops during an attempt to deoccupy the peninsula. Initially, temporary assembled from seconded airborne assault and motorized infantry units, and later permanent staff. In the future, the Russians, given the limited capabilities of their own military-industrial complex and the changing geopolitical situation, had to abandon some "giant" projects. This is how the interbranch 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 number of troops and forces of the Russian Armed Forces in the occupied Crimea is about 32.5 thousand servicemen, including the naval and air component – up to 21 thousand, and the land force is more than 11.5 thousand people (including those on a rotational basis).

The Commander of the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa, noted: “The Russian Federation has turned the Autonomous Republic of Crimea into the most powerful military base. During seven years the combat composition of surface ships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet increased by 45%. The total number is 58 units, including Kaliber naval cruise missile carriers - 13 units." According to him, the number of Russian warplanes has more than tripled, helicopters – has increased ninefold; the number of tanks has reached almost 40 units, armored combat vehicles – has increased sixfold, and multiple rocket launchers – 6.5 times.

In seven years, the Russians have been stuffing Crimea with weapons, turning the peninsula from a health resort into an offensive military bridgehead. And continue to strengthen it. Thus, the military-political leadership of the Russian Federation recently promised to increase the number of military groups in  Crimea to 45,000 servicemen in the coming years.

Military build-up

The first thing to pay attention to is a significant increase in the missile strike potential, primarily due to the carriers of anti-ship missiles (AShM) Kaliber-NK / PL with a range of 220-300 km, as well as their coastal counterparts – Bal (120 km) and Bastion (300 km) Coastal Defense Missile System (CDMS). One of the important operational and strategic characteristics of any navy is the "total volley", i. e the number of explosives thrown in the first volley of all means of the fleet. Today, the total volley of the Black Sea Fleet with missile weapons is 73 tons (see Long Arm). This is an important parameter that should not only be of concern to the Black Sea countries, but also considered by NATO partners in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. Why and how did such a sharp increase in combat potential was conducted?

First, due to the replenishment of the Navy's combat nucleus with frigates – Project 11356 Patrol Ships. This once again indicates that the strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea was planned by Russia long before its actual occupation. Project 11356 is the next step in Project 1135M, which was developed for the Indian Navy. In 2000-2010, six Talvar-class frigates were built for them at the Baltic Plant and Kaliningrad Yantar in cooperation with the Ukrainian Gas Turbine Research and Production Complex Zorya-Mashproekt. After that, the Russian authorities decided to develop a successful series in the interests of their own navy, so in Kaliningrad in 2010-2013 was laid a series of six more ships. By 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 sides remained unfinished.

The second component, which significantly replenished the missile potential of the Black Sea Fleet is Project 636 submarines. Until 2014, the Black Sea Fleet has the only one submarine – Project 877B Alrosa (another, PC B-380, as a combat unit cannot be considered, because it was constantly under repair). This was clearly not enough for the Black Sea. And in 2010, the Russian Navy Command decided to build a series of six submarines under the export Project 636, which is a continuation of the same Project 877 Varshavyanka. Due to restrictions on the replacement of weapons imposed by Ukraine for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the submarine crew chose a base, which was being built in the Geoport of Novorossiysk. The boats arrived at the Black Sea Fleet during the second half of 2014 – late 2016. Although Novorossiysk is the location of the newly formed 4th Infantry Brigade, most of the time they are based in the Southern Bay of Sevastopol.

Being limited in the construction of ships in 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 been replenished with six missile boats of Project 21631 (Buyan-M), which are being built for the Black Sea and Baltic Fleets (BF) at the Zelenodolsk Shipyard and then distilled by inland waterways to the Azov and further to the Black Sea. transferred to the Baltic Fleet). The latter, Grayvoron, joined the fleet on January 30 this year. In the future they wait for the arrival of one or two more boats of this project at the Black Sea Fleet.

Together with the missile boats, the Zelenodolsk plant also produces patrol ships for the Black Sea Fleet, in particular Project 22160 (Vasily Bykov type). Since 2018, the Black Sea Fleet has been replenished with four ships of this project. The last one, Sergei Kotov, was launched on January 29, and there are only six units in the series, which are planned to be delivered by the end of 2023. It is important that starting from the third board of the series, these ships are actually being built at the captured Kerch shipyard Gulf. This should be not only a reason 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, especially with Turkey, and ban them from crossing the Black Sea Straits.

Land Fist

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

The number of land forces in Crimea (only army units and formations, landing and marines, excluding various paramilitary formations, such as the Rosguard) is more than 11.5 thousand, i. e more than a third of the total military group on the peninsula. They are united in the army corps of naval subordination – an operational and tactical unit of Land forces, subordinated to the commander of the Navy and capable of conducting military operations both independently and as part of a diverse group of Naval forces.

The first time the Russians implemented the concept of subordinating the entire group of armed forces on the local territory to the commander of the fleet in the early 2000s in the Baltics. Then, all units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces in the Kaliningrad enclave were subordinated to the BF commander. After the occupation of Crimea, it came to a logical conclusion – in April 2016, the 11th Army Corps of the Coastal Troops of the BF was formed in Kaliningrad, and in 2017 – the army corps of the Black Sea, Northern and Pacific Fleets.

The 22nd Army Corps (headquarter in Simferopol) consist of:

The 126th Separate Coastal Defence Brigade, military unit 12676 (Perevalne, formed on the basis of “integrated” 36th Separate Coastal Defence Brigade of the Ukrainian Naval Forces);

The 127th Separate Reconnaissance Brigade, military unit 67606 (Sevastopol, formed on the basis of the Centre of SIGINT of Ukrainian Navy, as well as units of aero- and military reconnaissance).

The 8th Separate Artillery Regiment, military unit 87714 (Perevalne, formed on the basis of 406th Separate Brigade Artillery Group of Ukrainian Navy);

The 1096th Separate anti-aircraft missile regiment, military unit 83576 (Simferopol);

The 4th Separate NBC Protection Regiment, unit 86862 (Sevastopol) and other support units.

The 810th Separate Marine Brigade (Sevastopol) and units (usually battalion tactical groups) of airborne and motorized infantry brigades, being on a rotational basis a part of a strike group in the north Сrimea, are also subordinated to the headquarters of the Army Corps (up to 1.5 thousand servicemen).

The tasks of the 11th and 22nd Army Corps are similar: conducting defensive and offensive combat operations in the coastal direction both independently and in cooperation with the troops of the Western and Southern military districts, respectively. And if for the Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet the main task is the elimination of the Suwałki Corridor, which connects the territory of the Baltic States with Poland and the rest of NATO, then for the strike group in Crimea – the capture of Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, as well as the offensive (counter-offensive) in Melitopol. To do this, according to the Russian military, the corps has everything it need from a tank fist to a powerful missile and artillery group.

A feature of preparation for offensive hostilities is the redeployment to the state border (front line) of units of specific types of troops – airborne and assault, as well as army aircraft. In January 2015, the 39th Helicopter Regiment was formed at Dzhankoi Airport on reconnaissance and strike helicopters Ka-52 (the 1st Squadron), transport and combat Mi-35 and strike Mi-28 (the 2nd Squadron) and transport and combat Mi-8AMTSH (the 3rd Squadron). In 2016-2017, the Russians also wanted to redeploy the airborne assault battalion of the 97th Regiment of the 7th Airborne Assault Division to Dzhankoi, on the basis of which to form a separate airborne assault regiment. For some reason, these plans have not yet been implemented, but the idea of forming an airmobile fist in the AA Regiment-Regiment of Airborne forces stracture, is quite logical and has not been completely buried.

 

Stolen sky

During the seven years of occupation, Russia has created a strong air "umbrella" over Crimea with a powerful air group and ground air defense. It is first of all about the rearmament of the old anti-aircraft missile regiments, which in Ukraine were armed with S-300PS SAM, new S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. At the same time, the boundaries of their cover zone from enemy’s aircrafts increased from 75-150 to 400 km. In fact, they are capable to hit Ukraine's strike aircrafts until they reach the point of use of weapons.

The number and combat power of fighter and front aviation based at Crimean airfields has also increased (threefold in the number of aircrafts). These are Su-27SM and Su-27P interceptor fighters, Su-30M2 front-line fighters at Belbek airfield in Sevastopol. At the Gvardiyske airfield (Ostryakovo station), instead of the 43rd Black Sea Fleet Separate Naval Assault Aviation Regiment on the Su-24 / 24M and Su-30SM relocated to Saki (Novofedorovka), the 37th Mixed Air Regiment of the two-squadron air force (a squadron of Su-24M front-line bombers and a squadron of Su-25SM attack aircraft with 12 aircraft each), was formed.

As for rumors about the redeployment of long-range Tu-22M3 missile bombers to Crimea (until 1991 a whole division of naval missile carriers was based in Crimea – the 2nd naval missile aviation division at the airfields Gvardeyske, Saki, Octyabrske and Vesele), it is nothing more than a "soap bubble" designed to tickle NATO's nerves.

The fact is that during the Cold War, missile carriers from Crimean airfields to strike at NATO Allied facilities in the central Mediterranean (the main target was the grouping of the 6th US Fleet in Naples) went to the echelon of weapons over western Bulgaria and Romania. Today, Romania and Bulgaria are members of the Alliance, covered by a reliable Allied air and missile "umbrella". Thus, targets in the Mediterranean Sea are becoming unattainable for Russia's strategic aviation, and to reach the border of weapons use and not fall into the area of enemy air defense, Tu-22 from airfields in Crimea would have to gain altitude in the direction of Kuban and the Sea of Azov, and then, after the reversal, to launch missiles directly 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 serve to study the theater with their crews.

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

Nuclear resort

Speaking about the militarization of Crimea, one cannot avoid the problem of the presence or absence of nuclear weapons on the peninsula as today there is a lot of speculation.

In author’s view, nuclear weapons were, are and will be in the Black Sea Fleet. However, these are tactical nuclear weapons. To understand the issue, a distinction should be made between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Strategic are the "nuclear triad": intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for strategic aviation. There was no strategic nuclear weapons in Crimea. But if we talk about tactical weapons with a nuclear warhead (NWF), anything from cruise missiles to torpedoes and rocket-propelled grenades in Navy could be perceived as it. There are no serious differences between weapons with the conventional warheads and nuclear. Almost all modern ground-based air defenses can also carry nuclear warheads that are no different from conventional ones.

There were tactical nuclear weapons in the Black Sea Fleet. It was stored, serviced and equipped in special military units – repair and technical bases, facilities "C", in Balaklava (820 RTB) and in the valley of Kara-Koba (near the village of Saharna Golovka). After 1994, the ammunition stored on them was taken out, the units were disbanded, and a nuclear arsenal began to be built in the Krasnodar region.

However, it is one thing to equip a nuclear weapon and quite another to have such ammunition on board ready for use. According to the instructions on the Moscow cruiser, during combat duty should be at least eight combat missiles of the main complex, two of them with a nuclear warhead. There are six torpedoes on the Alrosa submarine, including one with the nuclear warhead. Ukraine did not have the ability to check the presence of nuclear weapons on Black Sea Fleet ships stationed in Sevastopol Bay. But such things could be conceived on indirect signs.

In Sevastopol in the shadow of the square of Warriors-Internationalists hides an inconspicuous two-story house at the address: st. Lenina, 27. It houses the "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 stability of nuclear facilities. Another indirect feature is that among the helicopters of the 872nd anti-submarine helicopter regiment (Kacha airfield) there is one unique aircraft – a Ka-27E helicopter. This is a special radiation reconnaissance helicopter. It is equipped with extremely sensitive equipment that allows reconnaissance of leaks of radioactive materials and nuclear munitions on board of the ship at a distance of up to 3 km. Until 2014, the Ka-27E flew over the Sevastopol bays every week and continues to do so to this day. Therefore, certain conclusions can be drawn from this.

Assessing the military group on the occupied peninsula, we should not forget that Crimea is not a separate state, and the Black Sea Fleet is not its armed forces. The Crimean group of troops is only 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 in a complex, according to a single plan and in cooperation with other units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces.