22 July 2019

In Crimea, Russia is calibrating its Kalibr Rockets towards the West

Sergiu Medar

In the past 18 months, Russia has strengthened the offensive component of its defence and deterrence military systems in the Black Sea by moving modern missile systems in Crimea, which have a way bigger range than the ones covering the Pontian shores. If, until now, its military installations in the area were dominated by the presence of defensive S400 missiles, Russia’s aggressive intentions towards the West and South materialize in the installation of Kalibr rockets on ten naval launchers.

Image source: Mediafax

Although it is not internationally recognized as part of Russia, Crimea is gradually being transformed by Russia into a centre for coordinating and executing offensive and defensive strikes, not only in the Black Sea area, but also in its extended region. This entails developing direct threat capabilities which can reach Syria, the Balkans, southern Poland and Ukraine. The nature of striking capabilities excludes a purely defensive option and highlights Russia’s intentions to build a modern bastion of attack against the free world. Crimea is thus established as a potential launch base for both conventional and nuclear attacks within a range of 2500km, up to 4500km in the future.

Any powerful state with credible military capabilities must have wide, open access to the world’s oceans and seas. Russia does not have this geostrategic position in relation with the most important ocean from a military standpoint, the Atlantic Ocean. The Russian fleet’s sea exits, towards this direction, are suffocated by the Baltic Sea to the north and the Black Sea through the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, in southern Europe. In order to ensure unhindered access through the two straits, a privileged relation with Turkey is vital for Russia. Currently this relation is, maybe, the best it has ever been throughout history, meaning this goal was met. This is how the Russian fleet in Crimea gains access towards the eastern Mediterranean, and from there to the area of interest in the Middle East. The Montreux Convention, which does not allow states which do not have a coast at the Black Sea to have a military presence on sea for periods longer than 28 days, reduces the deterring capabilities of Western NATO members fleets.

Through the installation of NATO and US defensive anti-air capacities, as well as the presence of their troops on the territories of Romania and Poland, Russia, whose National Security Strategy defines NATO as the main threat to its national security, considers the alliance a threat to its national existence, and for that reason it deploys both defensive and offensive capabilities in Crimea.

According to interview with several US intelligence officers, a “deliberate and systematic strengthening of military forces” in the entirety of Crimea was observed in the past 18 months.

This statement is supported by satellite images published in the Defense One magazine by the private company Planet Lab’s. These images show five S-400 missile launch bases near Kerci, in Feodosia, Sevastopol, Djankoi and Ievpatoria.

The S-400 missiles represent the most modern anti-air equipment. They are considered to be competitors for US-made missiles such as Patriot and THAAD, and are even superior to them in some parameters. The maintain speeds towards their target of 4.8 km/sec, compared with 1.38 for Patriot and 2.8 for THAAD. The distance from which they can hit a target is 400 km, compared with 20 for Patriot and 200 for THAAD. Their maximum flight height is 185 km, while Patriot reaches 24 and THAAD 150 km. With this kind of performance, Crimean anti-air defence systems can cover the entire surface of the Black Sea, as well as the entire coastal area.

By deploying its troops to Crimea, Russia basically doubled its land marine infantry compared with 1990; it now counts 30,000 men. According to public information released by US intelligence services, they will probably increase their ranks with another 13,000 throughout the next four years.

Crimean air forces currently have 81 planes and helicopters. They are equipped with apparatus which can strike targets throughout the entire surface of the Black Sea, but also in the Middle East.

The Black Sea Fleet recently received four surface ships and six Kilo-type submarines, all of them equipped with Kalibr missile launching systems.

Kalibr missiles are among the most technologically advanced weapons Russia has in its arsenal. They are produced in different options: cruise missiles, which can be launched from land, sea or air, anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine missiles, as well as anti-land target missiles. In their current option, the maximum distance they can hit their target is approximately 2,500 km. A modernized version, with a range of 4,500 km, is currently in the works. Even in the current, non-modernized version, it would allow to strike a vast array of targets, including any country in Central Europe or any town in Syria, from a docked ship, without even having to sailing out.

This missile’s combat use includes launches into Syria from the Caspian Sea or from the Admiral Grigorovich or Admiral Essen Russian frigates in the Eastern Mediterranean, or from the Velikii Novgorod or Kolpino submarines, onto land targets in Syria occupied by rebels or ISIS forces.

The difficulty in intercepting this type of missile stems from the fact that, on the first half of its route, it moves at subsonic speed, and them accelerates to supersonic speed on the final leg of its trajectory, just before it hits its target.

Several analysts tried to compare Kalibr and Tomahawk missiles. This is, however, premature, as the Russian missile’s combat use is not comparable with its American counterpart.

Ukrainian Government officials stated that, in Crimea, Russia is currently in the process of modernizing four locations for storing nuclear weapons. Representatives of US intelligence services who were interviewed on the subject said that they could not comment this statement, but that they can confirm the fact that fighter jets and ships equipped with nuclear weapons were deployed in Crimea in the past. There is no international treaty which forbids Russia from transporting or storing nuclear weapons on its own territory. The problem in question is, however, if Crimea is a Russian territory or not. In December 2018, Ukraine’s foreign minister at the time published, during a briefing, a list of nuclear weapons positions. Mustafa Dzehmilev, the leader of Tatar minority, currently in exile in Ukraine, also signalled the presence of Russian nuclear weapons of the territory of Crimea as back as 2016.

The fact that Russia is developing military capabilities on a territory it abusively occupies made Sarah Bidgood, director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury College’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies state the following: “There is an obvious strengthening of Russia’s force in the Black Sea. NATO will be under more and more pressure from its allies in the region to show that it is capable to respond to Russia’s attempt to take over control of the Black Sea. It is a truly dangerous environment”.

At the GLOBSEC Security Forum held in Bratislava in early June 2019, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said that he requested “the organization of a multinational operation to ensure freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, in order to show that when Russia is aggressive and uses military actions in the West, we (NATO) can issue a military response, not by kinetic military actions but by displaying our force and capabilities”.

It is known that the Black Sea is a true testing range for Russia, where it attempts to use various offensive means of radio-electronic warfare, the most talked about being those regarding GPS spoofing. These experiments were also performed on civil, foreign commercial ships sailing in the area’s international waters. In this way, Russia acted as if it was in its own territorial waters, violating the right to navigation of some of the world’s free states.

In the same context, retired gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of US land forces in Europe, said that “Russia, being a nation with a Black Sea shore, has the sovereign right to navigate the sea. But, by illegally annexing the Crimea and assaulting Ukrainian vessels, it positions itself against freedom of navigation on this sea.”

Through piling up forces with offensive capabilities in the Black Sea region, Moscow clearly expresses its option of reorienting its aggressive interests towards Southeast Europe, maybe more than towards the northeast, taking into account the extended purposes it has in this area. These simultaneously contain points of interest not only in the Black Sea, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, it targets Southeast Cyprus for its energy resources, but Syria or Iran could at any time be targets of Russian missiles.

Translated by Ionut Preda